Sunday 18 January 2015

The Underground Blockbuster Problem

Well, the Late Rembrandt exhibition included some of the greatest paintings in Western art, gathered together from the four corners of the Earth in what is surely a once-in-a-generation display. With just shy of 100 pictures, it was on the blockbuster scale - and it duly attracted blockbuster crowds. When we went, these were on such a scale that it was a struggle to get near any of the exhibits and, at several points, a struggle even to move through the throng. I came out at the end of it dazed and mildly stunned, glad of course to have seen these astonishing masterpieces - but asking myself what I had actually seen? In those circumstances had I really seen those pictures? Whenever I got close enough to have a proper look, it was impossible to settle down and really look, what with the continual jostling and the pressure to move on. It was the most perfunctory of encounters, rather like leafing through a volume of stupendously faithful reproductions in a crowded bookshop, with a gaggle of fellow book lovers clamouring to look over your shoulder. The most intense encounters were with what would generally count as the lesser works - the drawings and prints, where crowd pressure was less and it was possible to get up close and, because of the smaller scale, focus intently on the whole work and really take it in.
 There was another problem too - the fact that the exhibition was in the underground galleries of the Sainsbury wing, where only the intensely lit paintings brightened the Stygian gloom, and low ceilings increased the claustrophobic effect. I really don't think this was doing any favours to the paintings, which were unnaturally overlit, or to the hapless visitors groping their way around in semi-darkness. All the time I was shuffling around, I was envisaging what a vastly more satisfying exhibition this would have been, had it been hung in an airy, high-ceilinged, naturally lit gallery, with about four times the space. Certainly the intense lighting brought out certain qualities and details in the paintings - and of course such masterpieces can withstand overlighting, as they can withstand anything else - but they presented a very unnatural spectacle. We were certainly seeing them as Rembrandt never would have done.
 Anyway, as I say, I'm glad to have seen these astounding pictures - whatever 'seeing' might mean in such a context. I guess I'm just not the blockbuster type.


  1. Seems as though you have had a touch of Uffizi-itise, Nige. The current trend there is to have the camera on a pole and take selfies in front of the big ticket items, especially that Titian, you know, the Urbino Venus. Lack of self awareness being the culprit here. Poor old Sandro et al being the victims.
    Is taking a selfie in front of one of arts premier selbstbildnis exponents a case of life imitating art I wonder.
    Like the National, the Uffizi has bunged some of it's (own) finest examples down below stairs, I can understand it's totally absorbing Northern European Renaissance collection (not Italian!) but the Caravaggios for goodness sake.

  2. Yes it's such a shame - and I love the National Gallery itself, just about my favourite gallery - and no selfie-snapping there - at least I did't see any. Dios I hope this hasn't spread to the Prado...

  3. Perhaps "all the darknesses were dared" in the Rembrandt exhibition?

  4. Ha ha - very good - they were indeed!

  5. Hell is other people. It sounds like the awful scrum that is the Mona Lisa room at the Louvre.