Sunday, 6 March 2011
The problem with patrons
I was almost impossibly tired when I arrived at the National Gallery. I'd had a good but busy week and was still recovering from the amazing and absorbing experience of hearing Alan Moore, the Magus of Northampton, read aloud from his novel-in-process. [Note to anyone who hasn't come across Alan Moore: he is not only a remarkable writer but also one of the kindest and most courteous authors I have encountered. His reading held everyone in a huge lecture theatre spellbound for nearly an hour and he spent a further hour and a half speaking to everyone who had queued to have their books signed.]
The day after Alan Moore, I was on my way to visit my parents, unsure I was sufficiently awake to take in the Gossaert exhibition but knowing that I was unlikely to find another opportunity to see it. I also had my new Art Fund card with me - at last I've fulfilled my resolution to join, not just for the very welcome benefits but also because I have benefited from the Art Fund through a lifetime of gallery visits.
The route to the exhibition took me past many familiar paintings. On one side I spotted a favourite Titian. Through the entrance to another room I thought I glimpsed a Vermeer. There was Murillo, staring out of his frame like a competent marketer of his own paintings.
In my susceptible state of mind, even Rubens seemed set to lure me from my path toward Gossaert. After all, Rubens was not only free but there were comfortable padded benches from which his work could be admired. (I don't usually admire Rubens that much.)
I forced myself to make the long trek to the basement of the Sainsbury wing where the Gossaerts were displayed. It was worth it. I realised that I had seen and admired individual paintings by Gossaert in the past but I'd never seen them in relation to one another before. I hadn't even registered the artist's name.
There are six rooms in the exhibition. Gossaert's drawings and paintings are complemented by the work of artists who influenced him - a startling range from Northern European artists like Durer to the classical tradition of the Italian Renaissance. Although he's only mentioned in the timeline at the start of this exhibition, it's easy to see Holbein as the heir of this remarkable combination of influences.
There's more to Gossaert than his portraits but these are the most obviously remarkable part of his work. The people he paints in portraits convince as human beings, simultaneously familiar and unknowable. This isn't just true of his secular portraits. There's a lavishly clad Mary Magdalen with sly glance and dirty fingernails. But he also paints relationships, including erotic relationships. There are various works showing Adam and Eve, including some copies of lost originals, but all convey an astonishing blend of tenderness and desire.
The work that stunned me most - and nearly moved me to tears - was a painting of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. It's a dark painting - even the red robes of the flying angel and the sleeping St John are barely lit. An elderly figure - St Peter, perhaps, lies on his back, asleep in the foreground. He has the pallor of exhaustion. But at the centre is the kneeling figure of a youthful Christ, beardless, confused and close to despair. It's not an attractive figure but terrifyingly recognizable. It's the expression of any child confronting an incomprehensible horror. It could be Libya or Afghanistan - or, too often, the U.K.
At the end of the exhibition I couldn't give an account of Gossaert. I had no sense of the man who painted the pictures, except that he could see and reproduce with pencil on paper or paint on canvas. He had, it seems, some human understanding that didn't take a verbal form. And he had the luck to be taken up by a succession of patrons who took him within reach of the influences he needed to develop his art.
It was luck. That's the problem with patrons. While Gossaert had the right patrons for his development as an artist, he was limited to painting what they required: a portrait of a marriageable daughter, erotic works for a private collection, an altar piece, a sketch for a tomb. There is no way of knowing what Gossaert would have liked to paint. It's lucky that some of his patrons' requirements suited a style that we can now appreciate.
It's luck too that has made me so familiar with the works in the National Gallery - the luck of living near a free art gallery and being encouraged by my parents to look inside. I was brought up to take advantage of free and cheap culture - to see culture as a good that should be shared.
It was shocking, therefore, to read, the day after my visit to the National Gallery, of a Labour MP calling for the introduction of admission charges to London's museums. He's not just any Labour MP. The Hon. Tristram Hunt, son of a life peer and a historian with a proclaimed interest in radicalism and the working class, has written an introduction to a recent edition of Robert Tressell's The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. In this book, Robert Tressell, through his main socialist characters, argues that culture is one of the necessities of life and should be available to all. I assume Tristram Hunt read the book before writing the introduction. It's a shame he didn't take in its arguments.
It's fair to say that Tristram Hunt wants free admission to the museums in his own constituency of Stoke-on-Trent and, by extension, to other regional museums. I think they should be free too. But I don't think the country's great art galleries and museums should become the preserve of the wealthy. And I'm not interested in any party that can consider excluding the poor from culture, which is not just an education but a means to nourish imagination.
Had there been a charge for the National Gallery, I might have visited once or twice when I was growing up. I know I wouldn't have gone there often - and I wouldn't have learnt much about the history of art. I remember when Mrs Thatcher introduced admission charges for museums and galleries in the 1980s. I was poor then and on many occasions I was stuck outside, wishing I could afford to go in.
Now I've joined the Art Fund. I make donations because museums and galleries were free in my childhood and it's time to say thank-you. If there had been a charge, I wouldn't have bothered. I'd have known museums and galleries weren't for the likes of me.