Monday, May 04, 2015

Art lovers' heaven

Thoroughly enjoyed Frederick Wiseman's three-hour film on BBC Four about The National Gallery, with no narration and no music, part of the Slow TV season. You have 29 days to see it on iPlayer.

Although I did Art History at college (I did a Diploma in Art & Design), I didn't know about Caravaggio's use of ground colour in his chiaroscuro paintings, which was described as "economical". Nor did I know that when a painting has been cleaned it's varnished before being restored, so that there's a barrier between the original painting and the restoration. This means that if the painting is cleaned and restored again, all the hours of work done by the conservators can be wiped clean in minutes, leaving the canvas as it was before.

In the film, I found the staff and visitors to be as fascinating as the subjects in the paintings, especially in the galleries' subdued lighting. It reminded me of two people. The first was my Uncle George, one of my mother's brothers, who managed a toy shop not far from home. He was naturally talented (as was Mum - must be a family tendency) but I never saw anything of his apart from some pencil drawings. When he retired from the shop he got a job as an attendant in The Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool (my family's from Merseyside), where he was happy, surrounded by art and art lovers. Perhaps, if he'd had the opportunity, he'd have liked to do what I did, and go to Art College but, like many of his generation, higher education was out of the question, for financial reasons. My grandfather was a merchant seaman and he and Nana had five children to raise. Poor George.

The second person the film reminded me of was Dr Cronheim, who taught Art History at college. He was a small man, swamped by his heavy double-breasted pin-striped suit, who spoke with a thick Austrian or German accent. I don't know anything about him, but he was probably a wartime refugee. Dr Cronheim prided himself on his research into the characters in some of the large Renaissance paintings he lectured about, featuring the patron's families and friends with the holy family. If a patron had paid a lot of money for a religious painting, he might expect to be included in the subjects. If the artist had an especially strong reputation, he'd include himself in the painting too. On one occasion, Dr Cronheim pointed at a man in the bottom right hand corner of a large group surrounding Jesus and some angels and a bunch of others. "Zis is not the artist's brother, as I had first supposed, but the artist's brother-in-law!" He practically squeaked with emotion as he said this, his voice rising in triumph at his cleverness. I have no idea how he deduced the relationship of the man in the painting. I suspect poor Dr Cronheim was disappointed by our reaction, which was more amusement than admiration.

Some stills from the BBC film:

Restorer cleaning a painting
Visitors being lectured
Restorer touching up some blemishes
Alert gallery attendant
Guide lecturing about a painting

Old man sitting in a gallery

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