Why Botticelli? In an exhibition in which the first room includes remarkable paintings by Titian, Tintoretto and Savoldo, Botticelli’s Four scenes from the early life of Saint Zenobius (c.1500) is not exactly a highlight. The painting belongs to a class of decoration called spalliere – a long, horizontal panel that was inserted into a wall at shoulder height, recording chapters from the life of St. Zenobius, a former bishop of Florence. It’s beautifully painted and immaculately conserved, but doesn’t bear comparison with the artist’s masterpieces such as The Birth of Venus or the Primavera, both in the collection of the Uffizi Gallery.
The reason this relatively modest work gets star billing is because of the marketing requirements for a blockbuster exhibition in Australia, which equate big names with big attendances. When the final room contains a guaranteed drawcard such as Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1888), one part of the title is set in concrete. The problem is to decide which Italian Renaissance artist has the greatest name recognition. In the absence of Leonardo or Michelangelo, Botticelli got the nod.
Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London is the first major international exhibition to reach this country since the coronavirus sent the world into lockdown. The show has been on hold for the best part of a year, in storage in Japan, while the National Gallery of Australia waited for the pandemic to subside. To launch early in March is a bold gesture, considering that we are still wearing masks and scanning bar codes.
The NGA is hoping this show has enough pulling power to draw crowds to Canberra. The big gamble is that the desire to see great works of art will outweigh any scruples about the risks of travelling between cities. A secondary consideration is whether the typical Australian gallery-goer might say they’ve already been to London and seen the National Gallery collection.
The best answer to these equivocations may be that a truly great work of art is worth seeing again and again. I’d argue it’s worth travelling to Canberra simply to lay eyes on Rembrandt’s Self-portrait at the age of 34 (1640). By common consent one of the greatest portraits ever painted, it brings us into the most intimate contact with the Dutch master. Looking into the artist’s eyes, we can imagine many different things. Although it was intended as a display of self-confidence, it’s possible to detect a hint of anxiety in Rembrandt’s gaze, as he strains to maintain his pose of savoir-faire. Perhaps there’s also a flash of arrogance, a vice that would be one of the agents of his undoing in later life.
Experts have raved about the “humanity” of Rembrandt’s portraits, but to be human is not only to be the measure of all things, it is to be fallible, to err and suffer. Had he been a philosopher Rembrandt might have said, with Montaigne, “I have never seen a greater monster or miracle than myself.” Being a painter he has captured these sentiments in this searching image of his own face which transcends the claims of his own ego.
“Masterpiece” may be one of the most abused terms in the art lexicon but with the National Gallery there are only 2,300 works in the entire collection. There is very little fat, hardly anything that might be described as second-rate or average, and everybody seems to have their personal favourites. The painter, Jeffrey Smart, would rhapsodise about Piero della Francesca’s The Baptism of Christ (1450), but the work I can never get enough of is Piero di Cosimo’s A Satyr mourning over a nymph (c.1495).
Neither of these works are in the Canberra show but almost every room contains paintings that should stop viewers in their tracks. The most obvious is the luminous Sunflowers, a painting so iconic that the critic, Lawrence Alloway, once coined the term “sunflowering” for the process whereby a work that has been reproduced so often that it passes into popular culture. The antidote for this is to look for ten seconds at Van Gogh’s actual painting. It has an intensity no photograph can capture.
The other, truly iconic painting is Vermeer’s A young woman seated at a virginal (c.1670-72). We have so few works by Vermeer that every picture is priceless. This small oil displays the jewel-like colour and mastery of light and shade we have come to value so highly. It also presents a mystery, as we have no idea who the young woman is, or what she might be playing. And who is she looking at? The artist? Her audience? Maybe you and me.
Aside from these famous pictures, I’d recommend a long look at Gainsborough’s Mrs.Siddons (1785), a portrait of one of the famous actresses of the Augustan era. No longer in the first flush of youth, Mrs Siddons is still an awesome proposition: distinguished, expensive, handsome rathe than classically beautiful. Silks, furs and draperies aranged themselves around her in a dark, romantic swirl.
On the other side of the room spare a moment for Thomas Lawrence’s Queen Charlotte (1789), which shows the long-suffering wife of George III, looking worn but serene, buried in mountain of soft, fragile fabric. The artist has captured a beauty that transcends old age, perhaps the most forgiveale form of flattery.
Turner’s Ulysses deriding Polyphemus – Homer’s Odyssey (1829), El Greco’s Christ driving the traders from the temple (c.1600), would be major attractions in any show, along with pictures by Uccello, Titian, Tintoretto, Hals, van Dyck, Goya, Velazquez, Cézanne and Monet. I’ve seen these pieces many times, but one I hadn’t noticed that struck me with real force was Girolamo Giovanni Savoldo’s Mary Magdalene (c.1535-40).
Mary Magdalene is probably the most defamed woman in Christian history, having been transformed into the epitome of the ‘fallen woman’ on the basis of very little evidence. Savoldo’s teasing, puzzling image shows Mary wrapped in a silvery cloak. The small part of her face that we see wears an enigmatic smile. She looms like a mountain against a gloomy backdrop, each fold and wrinkle in her cloak being delineated with exquisite care.
It’s an image almost 500 years old that is just as engaging today as it must have been for its first viewers. It demonstrates why we need to keep looking at the Old Masters, because the best seem to renew themselves from one age to the next.
Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 5 March – 14 June, 2021
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 5 March, 2021