Wednesday, 26 February 2014

'What Is Renaissance Art?' at the National Gallery

I took the afternoon off work yesterday to attend a lecture on renaissance art at the National Gallery by Gill Hart. I wasn't expecting anything in particular from this 'taster' session but thought I'd try it out. I 'did' the renaissance - Italian and Northern European - at school in the '70s so I was familiar with the main themes and wanted a refresher. And that's exactly what I got.

Gill open by explaining the main themes to renaissance art and, briefly, put it in the context of Europe at the time, exploring the Americas and the Far East and using the vast wealth to invest in a new found interest in antiquity and art. Then she showed us a series of paintings on a big screen to illustrate the development of painting during the renaissance. She kept repeating that the renaissance wasn't the pinnacle of perfection, it was a time of experimentation - which it definitely was. The exploration of perspective along mathematical lines to make paintings more real and the study of anatomy.

I was a bit silently smug to note that none of the paintings she introduced us to were new to me, and that wasn't really the intention anyway. For me, it reminded me of my school days and the paintings Miss Robinson enthused about as she took us through the renaissance when I was 16, hearing her roll her tongue around some of the names, such as Pollaiuolo (a lovely sound to wrap your tongue around). We looked at pictures in Gombrich and the Phaidon series of art books and, what I have since learned, is that there's nothing to compare with looking at the paintings in the flesh. It is so much better to look at the real painting.

All of the paintings Gill showed us are in the National Gallery collection so we can see the real thing for free whenever we want. I noted down the paintings and the rooms they're in - including those that are in the current 'Strange Beauty' exhibition - so I can go back and look at them at my leisure.

After a tea break (that I wasn't expecting) and a chat with a nice lady who'd come down from Nottingham specifically for the lecture we started the second half of the lecture. This covered off portraiture of men before heading into a more detailed look at three of the paintings we'd already seen: 'The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian' by Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo (1475), 'Bacchus and Ariadne' by Titian (1523) and 'The Ambassadors' by Holbein (1533).

It was fascinating hearing the discussion of the paintings, the details and the reasons why one type of painting might be popular in one Italian state and not in another. The patronage of the Medici was, of course, touched on as indispensable to growth and influence of Florentine art. There was, sadly, no reference to Fra Angelico even though he has a painting made up of five panels in the National Gallery.

Something that sprung to mind when I was shown the Titian is that it was the cover painting on a glossy book about the National Gallery my mother bought in about 1976-77 and that I'd totally forgotten about. It was an early example of a coffee table book that she got because I was doing history of art at school and I never imagined I'd see these paintings in the flesh. And, indeed, I have seen them and have become terribly blasé about many of them and that's the wrong reaction. I should be glorying in them.

If there's anything the lecture has taught me it's to not become blasé, to look at the detail in the paintings - it's all there for a reason - and to try to understand what an ostensibly  pretty painting is trying to tell me, what is the historical and artistic context? Question it and try to understand it.

I really enjoyed the lecture and will be happy to go back for more. The level of detail was right for a 'taster' session, just enough to draw us in for more. Thank you Gill, that was fascinating!

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