I was brought up on reproduced pictures of classical fine art in books and journals, mostly in black and white and poor quality printing. It was only when I was at secondary school, we were exposed to places like the British Museum and the National Gallery. It was a revelation to see the real thing, in glorious colour. The vibrancy was awe-inspiring, the brush-strokes amazing, the skills involved in creating flesh and fur and fruit and fields was breathtaking. I recall going to the Courtauld Institute, before its move to Somerset House, in Portland Square, taking a tiny lift up to the top floor, with scant security, and then shown into a series of rooms with paintings I had only ever seen in books and on postcards. There was a divine Cézanne, Le Lac d’Annecy, which was my mother’s favourite picture, and we even made a detour on our way down to Italy to try and find the place from where it was painted. Le Lac d’Annecy is the view from the water’s edge of the hotel, where Cézanne, his wife and daughter had stayed as a family in 1896. It is a charming view, with the chateau reflected in the still water, with dark mountains cutting across the landscape in blue and green diagonals. The painter was not impressed with the view, aware of its ordinary appeal, and not trying to represent it in a convincing manner. He described it in a letter to his friend Joachim Gasquet, the writer and critic, ‘it is still nature, of course, but a little bit as we have learned to see it in the travel sketchbooks of young ladies’.
I remember seeing a Caravaggio for the first time in the flesh, and was completely blown away by the quality of light this Italian genius managed to achieve with the same pigments, brushes and oils as his fellow artists. Because we lived quite close to Hampstead Heath, I used to cycle up to Kenwood House to look at three paintings in particular. In the Orangery hung the life-size equestrian portrait of Whistlejacket by George Stubbs, with the magnificent riderless beast rearing up on its hind legs against a plain honeyed brown background. It has been described as ‘a paradigm of the flawless beauty of an Arabian thoroughbred,’ and was acquired by the National Gallery in 1997. The second painting was the delicate The Guitar Player by Johannes Vermeer, a masterclass in composition and painterly skills. The third was a late Rembrandt oil, know as Self-portrait with Two Circles, one of some forty selfies he painted in his lifetime, including some eighty drawings and etchings in total. It is a painting I have never grown tired of, and still try and see it a couple of times a year. The circles remain a mystery, and soi-disant art experts disagree as to their true meaning. Some think the circles are geographical, representing globes, but they contain no references and are placed rather far apart. It has been suggested that they represent the rota aristotelis, the Aristotelian idea of the true form of the world, with a possible cabalistic significance. It has also been theorized that the circles symbolize perfection of artistic skill, as in the story of the Italian master Giotto being summoned by the pope to demonstrate his artistry and responding by drawing a perfect circle in a single motion. Certainly, Rembrandt does have a certain cockiness about him, with his hand on hip in a defiant pose, but his face also betrays a deep sadness and resolve, possibly looking back on his life, with death, bankruptcy and ridicule, overshadowing his colossal fame as a great painter.
He was certainly ridiculed at the unveiling of his masterpiece The Night Watch. Rembrandt’s concerns were not preoccupied with civic pride, or even the individuals portrayed in the painting. He was more interested in creating a drama, using light and shade, to bring it to life with dynamism and characterisation of the common people ranged against the pomp and solemnity of the occasion, mixing a sense of the ceremonial and the comic. The crowd has not managed to fall into step behind the figure of Captain Frans Banning Cocq, as he gestures for his men to march out. Nobody had painted a militia painting quite like this before, certainly not in such a theatrical manner.
With museums and galleries shut around the world, because of the Covid virus, many have gone down the digital road, to bring their treasures to a wider audience. The Night Watch has just been released by the Rijksmuseum in such high definition, one can zoom in on mouths, muskets, moustaches, costume details and even see individual brush strokes. The 44.8 Gigapixel image was created for the Rijksmuseum’s conservation department, which has currently embarked upon a most exhaustive facelift The Night Watch has ever received. As you continue to click, you get further and further into the painting until the Captain’s paint-cracked eyeball is the size of a cricket ball, and you realise, as Will Gombitz wrote on the BBC website, ‘that tiny glint you first saw isn’t the result of one dab of Rembrandt’s brush, but four separate applications, each loaded with a slightly different shade of paint’. What we can see through digital magic is something Rembrandt would never have seen, even when painting it. The Rijksmuseum opened its doors again on 1 June 2020, and the idea is that the conservators and restorers will be working under the scrutiny of the general public, who will be allowed in, in much reduced numbers, to witness the actual restoration, and the removal of old varnish, albeit in a glass box. Timed tickets are essential, and visitors will be limited and routed around the museum to minimise contact.
At the beginning of the lockdown, the British Museum brought forward the launch of 4.5 million objects that are able to be downloaded by the general public, which is a about half of the museum’s collection, conservatively speaking. Most museums have between 3% and 5% of their objects on display, the rest being in storage, on loan or in the process of being conserved. I have tried a number of virtual museum sites, and it a bit like the Zoom effect during the lockdown, in that it is incredibly exciting at first to see one’s children, grandchildren and friends after weeks of absence, but it ain’t the real thing, even though it is better than nothing. Virtual painting will never replace the sheer joy of seeing a painting in real life and in real time, being able to view it from different stances and angles. There are some things that demand to be seen for real. The extraordinary marble sculptures of The Veiled Christ by Guiseppe Sanmartino and Il Disinganno by Francesco Queirolo in the Cappella Sansevero in Naples, just take one’s breath away. No-one has ever carved marble like that, before or since. Caravaggio’s Seven Works of Mercy in the Pio Monte della Misericordia in the same city, is another jaw-dropper. Speaking of superlative sculpture takes one to Palermo and one of the most sublime chapels in the cosmos, with Giacomo Serpotta’s stucco carving that is truly astonishing, and no amount of photography, filming or digital manipulation can replace the act of being there.
The same sentiments can apply to magnificent cathedrals in Milan, Rouen, Paris, Rome and London, or grand palaces in Europe and the Far East, or even a landscape. It is awe inspiring to be inside such beautiful and impressive buildings, surrounded by their sights, sounds and smells.Film makers used to have to be inventive as to how they portrayed a scene, using models, glass painting, back projection and other tricks of the trade. Nowadays, they can film anything in CGI, and they do. The predominance of superhero blockbusters, with the universe as your oyster, means that everything that can be imagined is, which some critics say has stifled the simple act of storytelling. How often has a film been as good as the book? Name just one. The museums and galleries have tried to fill in the gaps, if not the craquelage, by inviting virtual visitors onto their sites, and one despairs at their plight. The museums of Flanders banded together to produce five short films available on YouTube entitled The Stay at Home Museum, showing what the visitor was missing during the lockdown. The first was a curatorial tour of the Museum of Fine Art in Gent, showing off their Jan van Eyck exhibition, with Bruegal at the Museum of Fine Art in Brussels, followed by Rubens at Rubens House and James Ensor at the MuZee in Ostend. The final one was a new one on me: Hof van Busleyden, a 16th century Burgundian Palace in Mechelen, where Margaret of Austria hosted Thomas More and Erasmus, which was a fascinating diversion. It made one want to go, so, on that level, it works. They have had 2.5 million hits since they started in April, so there was patently a demand for ersatz culture. There is no substitute for the real thing, but virtuality can act as an alternative.