Thursday 23 June 2022

The Touring Twelve

 I see the National Gallery is planning to mark its bicentenary by releasing a dozen of its masterpieces on loan to 12 galleries across the country, where each can be admired in splendid isolation. There's a slight whiff of Londocentric condescension about this, but I'm all for anything that spreads the capital's art treasures around a bit – and that reduces the scale of art exhibitions: you can't go lower than one painting. Presented with a single masterpiece, you have no choice but to engage with it at some length and in some depth, whereas, in touring a grand gallery – even one on a relatively modest scale, which the National is – it's all too easy to pass from one painting to another with barely a pause, forming only a superficial idea of each work. The average time a gallery visitor spends with each painting has been calculated at eight seconds, so there's plenty of scope for what is fashionably known as 'slow looking', and nothing could make that easier – imperative even – than a single-painting exhibition. The twelve set to be unveiled across the provinces are listed here...
It's an unexceptionable, even predictable, list, though another list of a dozen of equal quality could be made, and another, and another – the National is a great gallery with a quite astonishing collection. The odd one out in the touring twelve is obvious: Artemisia Gentileschi's Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria – and not solely because it's the only painting by a woman. A fine and fascinating work though it is, it surely doesn't fit in such stratospherically august company as this. No doubt it was included simply because the list makers felt there had to be something painted by a woman, and frankly there's not a lot of choice, at least in the National Gallery's collection. Oddly, it is the one painting of the dozen that has already been on tour – in 2018, when it turned up in a wide range of non-gallery, non-museum settings, so that it could be seen by people who do not go out of their way to look at works of art. Another laudable initiative, though of course not the kind of thing you could do with the Wilton Diptych or the Toilet of Venus... 


  1. I wouldn't rate any of these highly either:

    The Water-Lily Pond - Monet
    The Umbrellas - Renoir
    The Hay Wain - Constable
    nor the Botticelli, because he makes me sick. If I were brave enough I'd admit that I even have my doubts about Turner, although if he must be there that is a good one.

    What is it one is supposed to say after terrible gaffes? I'll get my coat?

  2. Well said, Zoe. Those certainly wouldn't be my Top 12 either – I'd take Seurat's Bathers over the Monet and the Renoir any day, and why no Titian? What about the Arnolfini Marriage? Holbein's Ambassadors? etc. I guess the Virgin of the Rocks is too expensive to move...