Sunday, February 19, 2017

A National Gallery tour

[This is a post I originally put on my OU blog on 25 August 2010. I'm reposting it here so non-OU students and colleagues of mine can see it (back then I didn't have such things). Obviously, some of the paintings not on display then now are, and vice versa. And these days my route would be slightly different, including Bronzino's An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, and Lastmann's Juno discovering Jupiter with Io.]
At the beginning of this month I took my last group of students round the National Gallery in London as a post-exam treat. I've been doing this for a long time, and I hope that students appreciate it. The intention was to have a look at some paintings related to the Classical world, with one eye on A330 Myth in the Greek and Roman Worlds. [These were students who had done the module on Exploring the Classical World, and might be tempted to the follow-on module.]
Anyway, the tour went as follows:
I began chronologically at the end, with Room 34: Great Britain 1750-1850. I began here simply because it seemed to make most sense in terms of the Gallery's layout, from the main entrance. I had come here for J.M.W. Turner's Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus - Homer's Odyssey. Turner didn't do a lot of Classical landscapes, but this one always appeals to me. I'm never quite sure if the Cyclops can be seen in this painting (is he the dark shape above the ship? or are those just rocks?), but there's lots of details you can point out, such as the almost-invisible horses of the sun, or the Trojan War depicted on the ship's flag (I nearly got in trouble from the attendants for getting too close when pointing that out). It's nicely placed next to The Fighting Temeraire.
We passed swiftly through Room 33: France 1700-1800, pausing only briefly for Psyche showing her Sisters her Gifts from Cupid. We paused only slightly longer in Room 32: Italy. There we looked at Dido receiving Aeneas and Cupid disguised as Ascanius and, on the opposite wall, Perseus turning Phineas and his Followers to Stone. With regard to the latter, I talked about how many of the mythological scenes depicted in post-Renaissance painting are derived from Ovid's Metamorphoses. In that context, I should really have discussed The Fall of Phaeton, but I didn't.
In Room 30: Spain, we stopped at The Toilet of Venus. Here we talked about how, in this commission for the Marqués del Carpio, Diego Velázquez was able to use the cloak of making the painting mythological essentially to allow him to depict a real naked woman, in a manner that would otherwise be unacceptable - if not for the addition of wings to the boy, this would have been considered wholly immoral. Even then, it was probably not displayed publicly. And it has remained controversial, as shown when a suffragette slashed it in 1914. I also find it interesting that when Manet, to all intents and purposes, showed us the other side of this image in Olympia, whilst he stripped away much of the mythological associations, he left her with a Classical name.
Room 29: Peter Paul Rubens, has paintings that we could have looked at, including two versions of The Judgement of Paris. Instead, we headed for Room 12: Titian and Venice 1500-1530 [this has now moved to Room 2]. The key piece here is Bacchus and Ariadne. I really liked talking about this painting, because there is so much one can get out of it. It crystallizes the moment that Ariadne ceases to care about Theseus, who has abandoned her (Theseus was, frankly, a bit of a [four letter word], at least in this instance). This is symbolized by making his ship very small, and placing it on the opposite side of Ariadne from where she is looking. But there is so much more: Ariadne's crown set in the sky as stars, the chariot of Bacchus in the form of a sarcophagus, thus symbolizing resurrection, the sly nod to the Sistine chapel in Bacchus' arm. (I'm grateful to Chris Wilson for pointing that out in a previous National Gallery trip that he led, and which he is repeating for the London Region Arts Club on Sunday October 17.)
We also went across the intersection to Room 10: Venice 1530–1600 [now Room 6], for Titian's unfinished The Death of Actaeon. Here, once again, one can see the influence of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Though the transformation into a stag is in the earliest versions of the myth, there are other versions (in vase painting, etc.) in which the transformation appears not to take place, and it is Ovid's terrifying description in Metamorphoses 3.138-255 of Actaeon being torn apart by his own hounds, unable to communicate with them, has become the dominant version. Unfortunately, Titian's companion piece to this painting, Diana and Actaeon, is not currently on display - it's jointly owned with the National Galleries of Scotland, and spends five years at each institution, so at the moment it's in Edinburgh. [It is now, of course, in London.] (Charles Martindale has an interesting discussion of Titian and Ovid, including these paintings, in Redeeming the Text, pp. 60-64.)
From there it was off to Room 19: Nicholas Poussin, principally for two treatments of essentially the same subject, A Bacchanalian Revel before a Term of 1632-1633, and The Triumph of Pan, from 1636. We compared the two paintings, and also compared them with the same artist's The Adoration of the Golden Calf, and Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne. I feel that the revel in the earlier painting looks like mostly harmless fun, whilst that in the later one has the air of an event about to get out of control.
From there, it was into the Sainsbury Wing for the mediaeval paintings. Actually, there was only one room we were interested in, Room 58: Paintings for Florentine Palaces. When we arrived, another tour group was already there, so we listened to their guide talk about A Satyr Mourning Over A Nymph. When they departed, we went to look at Antonio del Pollaiuolo's Apollo and Daphne [the National Gallery now attributes this to his brother, Piero], which depicts the climax of the Daphne myth (scroll down), the point where the nymph Daphne is being transformed into a laurel bush to save her from the god Apollo's amorous intentions. The Penguin translation of the Metamorphoses, which is a set book for A330, has on its cover Bernini's sculpture of the same moment, in which Daphne is being transformed from arms downwards, as in this painting, but also from her legs upwards. The Bernini is probably a better encapsulation of frustrated desire, but it's interesting to compare this to the earlier (by about 150 years) painting (which, incidentally, is used - though for some reason reversed - as the cover for the Penguin edition of Arthur Golding's Elizabethan translation, which Penguin has in print as a classic of English literature).
Unfortunately, the painting that I would have like to conclude with, Botticelli's Venus and Mars, is not currently on display in this room, being shown in the exhibition Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries, next to a painting that was bought together with Venus and Mars in 1874, and considered at the time to be another Botticelli, though it patently isn't. What I like about Venus and Mars is the contrast between Mars and Venus. The former is asleep, clearly exhausted after a bout of lovemaking. Venus, on the other hand, is wide awake, with a rather inscrutable look on her face. I wonder if she is going through the experience of women through the ages, the post-coital thought, "was that it?"
This, of course, doesn't get close to covering all the paintings in the National Gallery's collection that have mythological subjects, or even all the ones on display (I tried and failed to spot Claude's Landscape with Aeneas at Delos as we passed). The Gallery used to publish a useful Pocket Guide on Myths and Legends. This covers some of the most significant mythological paintings in the collection, including some, though not all, of the ones I mention above. It no longer appears available through their online ship, but you can get it at Amazon, though their stock is almost exhausted. [Now it's via Amazon Marketplace.]

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