Three Days in London (Part 2 of 3)

Part 2 of 3—to read Part 1 and a visit to William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain at the Victoria and Albert Museum, click here

Exterior, National Gallery. © National Gallery, London

Saturday morning belonged to my beloved Paolo Caliari, detto il Veronese, so it was with some solemnity that I descended toward the eastbound platform of the District Line at South Kensington. Even at 10:30 in the morning the National Gallery was busy. Not surprisingly, I heard plenty of Italian around me, but an equal amount of French. The French are certainly familiar with “Paul Veronèse.” Indeed, when they invaded the Serene Republic in 1796, Napoleon’s troops hauled off twice as many works by Veronese as by any other Venetian Old Master. A mammoth trophy from that raid, The Wedding Feast at Cana, 1563, now hanging in the Louvre, is too big to travel, and is not part of the exhibition.

Parenthetically, when I lived in Paris many years ago, the Cana picture—that storied wonder of the painted world—was being restored in public in a gallery divided, as I recall, by a huge plate-glass wall. The herculean cleaning was not without controversy, and made the front page more than once. Much was made, for example, of a brown tunic worn by a foreground figure, which conservators revealed to have originally been a very Veronese green. Some eloquent sensibilities were bruised by the change, arguing that the restoration was a gratuitous correction of the artist’s own self-correction. The Louvre’s experts were unmoved, so green it is. More alarming by far: one day the gigantic picture fell off the wall and onto scaffolding standing in front of it, causing a four-foot gash, among other holes and scrapes. The gallery was promptly closed and the restoration took, well, longer.

Generally, I enjoy retrospectives. They confirm my belief that a genius is not born, but rather made through the agency of encouragement and the honing of concentration. Admittedly, the young Paolo Caliari had more going for him than the young William Kent. For one thing, he was Italian—an enormous advantage in the 16th-century art world; for another, he had a real gift for pictures. His early works in Verona are wonderfully sophisticated for a young man who had started out as a stonemason. Though not as ravishing as the magnificent products of his best Venetian years, a big picture like The Anointing of David, 1550, with the compositional complexity (albeit a little squished) of its two dozen figures, including a sacrificial bull and a stoic goat, is mighty impressive for a 22-year-old.

 

 

Paolo Veronese (1528–1588), Allegories of Love – Happy Union (c. 1570–75), oil on canvas, 187.4 × 186.7 cm. © The National Gallery, London (NG 1326)

Colour is the first word on the lips of anyone who has been looking at Veronese; it is as if he invented his own greens and blues, mauves, pinks, rusts and yellows. But really, he is the unrivaled master of grey, which is why his colour looks so magical. Has anyone made better dramatic use of shadows, for example? I can’t think of a single filmmaker or photographer who has matched the shadow across Saint Sebastian in the miraculous Virgin and Child with Saints for sheer dramatic power. This altarpiece, not in the show, was painted by Veronese for his Venetian parish church, which is dedicated to the martyred centurion. His most elegant (and disquieting) use of grey, however, was inadvertent. The flat grey heaven of Veronese’s Four Allegories of Love resulted from his use of smalt in these pictures: a glass- and cobalt-based pigment that reads blue—well, for a while anyway. I could not pull myself away from the octagonal gallery where these gorgeously strange pictures hang together in the exhibition, high up on the wall were they belong.

Paolo Veronese (1528–1588), The Family of Darius before Alexander (1565–67), oil on canvas, 236.2 × 474.9 cm. © The National Gallery, London (NG 294)

You have to travel quite a bit to get your fill of the great Veronese, to whom this show is far more than just a fine introduction. Of course, his ceiling paintings were not pulled down to send to London—notably the Queen Esther suite from the aforementioned San Sebastian, which I once had the good fortune to see up close on easels when the three paintings were being restored—but this exhibition is the furthest thing from frustrating. I loved every satisfying minute of my nearly three hours there. It is a chance to get close to many pictures that are usually tucked deep into inaccessible side chapels of gloomy churches that no amount of coins in a meter box will ever light brightly enough to properly see. And yes, there were pictures long overdue for cleaning, but not many, and none of these belonged to the National Gallery. Their own marvels—no fewer than ten—looked fresh and serene, notably The Family of Darius before Alexander, 1565–1567, one of the U.K.’s greatest treasures, and a picture that never fails to move me. The Gallery’s large and architecturally complex altarpiece The Adoration of the Kings, 1573, was spruced up in advance of the show, and it looks terrific.

Paolo Veronese (1528–1588), The Adoration of the Kings (1573), oil on canvas, 355.6 × 320 cm. © The National Gallery, London (NG 268)

I was seeing many pictures for the first time here, such as the innovative Martyrdom of Saint George, c. 1565. As Director Nicholas Penny notes in the audioguide (recommended), the protagonist is sitting on the ground, untypically but most effectively at the very bottom edge of the large canvas. He looks completely transported by his faith, and oblivious to the horrors that await him. And then there is the gallant but wary Saint Menna, c. 1560, in full armour (caught at the moment of conversion?). Like so many pictures by Veronese, he has the likeness of someone you don’t recognize from any other picture by the artist: one of his many convincing character studies of un-idealized Northern Italian types. 

The survey ends, predictably enough, with late works, a number of which are not likely to be entirely by the artist’s own hand, if at all, but rather the product of his studio. Although there are some good pictures in this gallery, it has a tragic cast as my beloved Veronese, losing energy from failing health, passes the baton to his sons when he was around my age. These are not my favourite pictures in the show, but this room is perhaps the most emotionally charged.

 

Curator Xavier F. Salomon introduces the exhibition Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice, on view at the National Gallery in London until June 15, 2014.

Exit through the gift shop, where I bought the catalogue, authored by the impressive young scholar—and exhibition curator—Xavier F. Salomon, who had also worked on our Petrobelli project. In fact, he is the fellow who sleuthed out the missing head of the archangel in the centre of the altarpiece, having remembered an orphaned Veronese head from a visit to the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin. I also picked up a travel guide to the major Veronese sites in and around Venice, in anticipation of a future pilgrimage.

With people swarming around me, and lost in the memory of the great exhibition, I slowly descended the stairs on my way out through the Portico entrance on Trafalgar Square. My eyes suddenly fell upon what looked for all the world like a portrait of Greta Garbo in mosaic on the floor. Laughing to myself at the unlikeliness of such a thing in the august National Gallery, I decided to investigate further, dodging tourists, and soon found Virginia Woolf.  A bit giddy from the abrupt change of subject, I approached a guard, “Excuse me, did I just walk on Virginia Woolf?”

“You did indeed, sir.”

With both of us smiling broadly, I was directed to the Information Desk, where I was handed a printout with everything you would ever need to know about the mosaic floor—one of four that Russian artist Boris Anrep produced for this staircase, with leading figures from the arts and sciences of the 1920s playing the gods and muses of antiquity. It seems that Anrep was quite popular in his time, and even did a floor in Westminster Abbey. This one is certainly impressive, though hard to see through the crowds. 

After a quick but satisfying little lunch in the National Dining Rooms of the Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing, I thought I would wend my way through the back alleys around the rear and towards the many private galleries behind the Royal Academy in nearby Piccadilly. It dawned on me, though, that I hadn’t looked up what was on at the RA so I went there first, just in case. Besides the annual print fair, which felt too much like work to me, they advertised a show of Renaissance chiaroscuro prints—something I knew nothing about, and was not exactly dying to learn. I was intrigued, however, by the fact that most of the prints in this show, organized by Arturo Galasino, belong to Georg Baselitz, the famous contemporary German painter whose violently hacked-up wooden sculptures I particularly enjoy. The show turned out to be fascinating.

Hans Burgkmair the Elder, St. George and the Dragon (c. 1508–10), chiaroscuro woodcut printed from two blocks, the tone block in beige, 32 x 22.5 cm. Collection Georg Baselitz. Photo: Albertina, Vienna

Chiaroscuro prints are made from multiple woodblocks—between two, and as many as five in some cases—inked and pressed onto the same sheet. The effect will be familiar to you from modern two-colour printing: first, the mood is set by areas of colour from a mid-tone block or two, while the darker ink lines of a standard woodcut fill in the drawn details on top.

Just as interesting as the prints themselves is their history. Although a German invention, perfected by Lucas Cranach the Elder, some famous Italians also explored the technique. Beccafumi and Parmagianino, for example, supplemented their incomes by teaming up with printmakers who would translate their work to paper for a mass market. The wall didactics told of dastardly doings, from stolen drawings to rampant copyright infringement. Dürer was a frequent victim, especially his still-popular rhinoceros. 

Ugo da Carpi, after Raphael, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (c. 1523–27), chiaroscuro woodcut printed from three blocks, the tone blocks in red, 23.4 x 25.7 cm. Albertina, Vienna. Photo: Albertina, Vienna

I was particularly taken by the smallest prints: rough, schematic, but graceful little depictions of usually allegorical figures. It’s easy to see why Baselitz would love these things. The off-register of some blocks reminded me of his own deliberate flouting of register, occasionally with the use of colour, on his painted sculptures. Apparently, he has accumulated the largest private collection of these often-beautiful prints. So, there went another two hours, and a third catalogue was added to my luggage.     

Click here to read Part 3 and visits to Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at the Tate Modern, Martin Creed: What’s the point of it? at the Hayward Gallery, and The First Georgians: Art & Monarchy 1714–1760 at Buckingham Palace.

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