Friday, 4 April 2014

'Strange Beauty' at the National Gallery

This evening we went to a late showing of the 'Strange Beauty' exhibition at the National Gallery. Sub-titled 'Masters of the German Renaissance', the exhibition tells the story of the northern European renaissance when what we're used to seeing is the glories of Italy. But there are also glories of the north and it's nice to showcase them like this. It's not a big exhibition but it's certainly worth seeing.

The exhibition pulls together paintings from the northern renaissance in the National Gallery's collection, many I don't remember being on display so it's nice to see them hanging together. Some of these painting I've loved for a long time - 30-odd years for some of them - and others I've never seen before. Early on we see the 'Arnolfini Portrait' by Jan Van Eyck, a marvellous marriage portrait of Mr Arnolfini and his young wife, with slippers and a dog, a mirror with the backwards reflection and the chandelier with glints of metal. It's full of glorious detail from the carpet behind the wife to the fruit on the dresser behind the husband referencing the fecundity of his wife. The way the clothes hang, the folds and the drapery of the bed all bring a new and challenging realism to painting at the time. Mr Arnolfini might not have been the most handsome of men but he has how place in history forever and so does his demure wife.

Another painting I learned to love many years ago is Albrecht Durer's 'Saint Jerome'. This is the saint in his older years discarding his red hat and robe and going into the wilderness with his friendly (but rather snooty-looking) lion to reinforce his spiritualism and belief. This is a tiny painting, about six inches tall and it packs so much into that small space. One it's glories is the background that is reminiscent of a Leonardo landscape, all rocky outcrops, trees, flowers in the grass at the saint's feet and with an emotional sky and a hint of sunset. The colours are still vibrant after all these years (much more lively than they look in this picture) and another painting on the back which is also on display shows the end of the world in what looks like a massive explosion. I wonder how Durer imagined the world exploding all those years ago?

As well as Van Eyck and Durer, we also see paintings by Lucas Cranach who painted the poster girl for the exhibition - Venus - and Holbein with his great work, 'The Ambassadors'. Holbein is also  represented by a painting I've never seen before, 'A Lady With A Squirrel And A Starling', a lovely portrait with a simple composition and beautiful detail, such as the fur in the mink bonnet she wears and the glints of light in the feathers of the bird. The squirrel, of course, is just taking care of a spare nut he found.

One thing that irritated me about the exhibition was harping on about how ugly some of the people were, which is why it's a 'strange' beauty. There's even a room at the end of the exhibition where you can pin notes to a wall about what you think. I think that's silly. Yes, many of the people depicted in these old paintings aren't the idealised characters we're used to from Italian paintings but that doesn't make them strange or ugly, just another way of depicting human beings. There's plenty of beauty on show in this exhibition and plenty to enjoy.

 The exhibition is on until May so you have plenty of time to see it.

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