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‘Canaletto makes me realise how much I have missed being in a crowd’ – in search of company at the National Gallery

16 July 2020

My first visit to the reopened National Gallery coincides with someone else’s first date. The perfume of the unknown woman in front of me traces the path ahead as clearly as the white arrow vinyls along each loop and cross-section as I take Route A (The Sainsbury Wing) and later Route C (Holbein to Van Gogh). Following the enforced chronology in a silent, slow procession of individuals in face masks I find the couple’s connection reassuring and reminiscent of the chatty chaos of tourists and sprawling school students that previously enlivened every room of this museum.

Directional arrows at the National Gallery. Photo: the author

Directional arrows at the National Gallery. Photo: the author

I came to National Gallery wondering how these familiar paintings would look after four months of not seeing any art. Piero’s The Baptism of Christ has always captivated me. Now that I have seen a photograph taken at a care home of an embrace through a plastic sheet adapted with plastic tubes for sleeves, will I be anaesthetised to it? My first impression is that the gallery feels safe, with its foot-operated hand-sanitiser dispensers. It feels warm, with kind, clear directions from knowledgeable staff. You can even sit down. My tastes have changed, though. I find myself obsessing over oil-painted mouths: complete, expressive faces compared to the dull, cut-off visages of my fellow gallery-goers. At least the visitor-services staff have transparent plastic visors. But this makes our interactions curiously one-sided. I hope that by scrunching up my eyes they know I’m responding to their smiles.

Single-figure compositions leave me cold. I walk straight past portraits I normally dwell on. Despite Carlo Crivelli’s animating techniques – gilding, punching and building up pastiglia haloes  – The Demidoff Altarpiece comprised of individual saints boxed in frames feels like a lockdown video-call. Instead I want to jump into Jacopo di Cione’s San Pier Maggiore Altarpiece. I sit on a bench with its reminder to stay physically distant, wishing to cram in among the seraphim, cherubim and angels and listen to the musicians playing at the Virgin’s feet.

My attention keeps being caught by depictions of touching, of bodies expressing ease with each other. I’m drawn to the three disciples, sleeping with their mouths open, in Andrea Mantegna’s The Agony in the Garden. I miss the reassuring comfort offered to each other by the sex workers sketched by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the caring hands of one friend wrapping a shawl about the other. In Peasant Girls bathing in the Sea at Dusk by Degas, you can almost hear the shrieks of delight as their lithe bodies move jerkily in response to the cold, destabilising waves. It makes me want to hold hands and dance with people I don’t live with.

The Agony in the Garden, (detail), (c. 1455–56), Andrea Mantegna. National Gallery, London

The Agony in the Garden (detail; c. 1455–56), Andrea Mantegna. National Gallery, London

Canaletto makes me realise how much I have missed being a dot in a crowd. His careful calligraphic marks of yellow ochre, Naples yellow, and Prussian blue conjure up a vivid undulating mass, their shadows mingling their bodies into black. The ceremonial scenes of A Regatta on the Grand Canal and The Basin of San Marco on Ascension Day make me ache for the alchemy of the crush of bodies: sweaty in clubs, determined in protest, even grumpy on tube platforms. In an otherwise entirely empty room, the ‘Famous Painter of Views’ who was prized by tourists on the Grand Tour for creating mementos of festive Venice, shows me everything we are now not able to do.

The nostalgic holiday ends in Room 34: ‘Great Britain 1750–1850’. Johann Zoffany’s Mrs Oswald stares out at me, with her crooked sardonic gaze. She’s all frippery and ribbons on a grubby-looking boulder, sand about her silk shoes, but it’s the blue-tinged translucence of her white, white skin that keeps my gaze. Enriched by slavery and trading in weapons, Mrs Oswald acquired her many-stranded pearl-necklace with the wealth of plantations in Jamaica.

Mrs Oswald, (c. 1763–64), Johann Zoffany. National Gallery, London

Mrs Oswald (c. 1763–64), Johann Zoffany. National Gallery, London

I came here more than ready for the National Gallery to look different, but in fact – apart from the PPE – it feels the same. I’ve seen only two paintings featuring black people: both nattily dressed Balthazars in nativity scenes. The National Gallery’s statement about anti-racism was at best vague, at worst avoidant. The Gallery spaces have reacted so overtly to coronavirus: white arrows every few meters imposed on historic stone, marble and mosaic floors. But its light-touch curatorial interpretation that cultivates stately-home grandeur does not yet recognise the demand that Black Lives Matter, or that many of the artworks that bring it prestige were bought by the reparations gifted to slave owners. Of course ‘listening’, ‘questioning’ and ‘reflecting’ is what we should all be doing. But experimenting with the introduction of more detailed labels would be a more concrete statement of solidarity.

At 3.45 the tannoy announcement encourages us towards the exit. As I cycle home, I think about the sudden granting of access to museum collections through free online tours and enhanced social media, and hope that it will not be revoked now that physical visiting is possible. What the National Gallery has to offer shouldn’t be reserved for only those with the physical and financial means to travel to it. What disability-rights activists have been demanding for decades (in return for torturously slow and incremental concessions) is now clear to all. So it is a bittersweet pleasure and privilege of having been to see some excellent paintings. It has honed my eye to see the remarkable in the everyday. Still lifes materialise in front of me along the Cycle Superhighway. The Thames has never looked so beautiful.