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Seeing Velazquez
National Gallery, London

Michael Savage
posted 28 June 2006

Velazquez, the supreme genius of Spanish art, is on show as part of the permanent collections of the Prado in Madrid and the National Gallery in London. But hurry; the show ends in October, when he is the subject of another inane blockbuster at the National Gallery.

I love Velazquez, but I won't be going to the Big Shiny Blockbuster. No doubt accompanied by saturation publicity, it will sell out anyway, although no one will see anything much. Worse still, it won't be held in the purpose built exhibition space in the Sainsbury Wing, which is deemed too small; it is teeming with rows of people in front of everything throughout major exhibitions. So the permanent collection will be disrupted, the nineteenth century paintings moved the basement for the first time. It sends a chilling signal. The main purpose of the gallery has always been the display of the permanent collection. Now it can freely be disrupted to make room for a temporary show, another sign of the shift from the permanent glory of a great collection to the transient high of a glitzy show.

The argument that more people can visit is foolish; the crowds that are two or three deep in the basement might be four of five deep upstairs, and you might expect to catch a glimpse of some paint for about 20-25% of your visit, if you can stand the jostling. It's a really shameful spectacle that demeans that National Gallery and belittles Velazquez.

The National Gallery has the second best Velazquez collection in the world, currently shown together in a large gallery of Spanish art. Here we see a cluster of youthful works on one side of the room, crowned with a magnificent painting of an obscure subject, 'Christ after the Flagellation Contemplated by a Christian Soul'. On the other side are mature masterpieces - 'Philip IV of Spain', full length and superbly preserved, and the incomparable (though tragically very damaged) 'Rokeby Venus'.

Most art, and especially most great art, is usually seen through reproductions, either on the page of a book or projected onto a screen in a seminar room. Reproductions give a good sense of the overall arrangement of the elements, so when people see the original in a gallery they tend to move closer and closer to paintings, imagining that their meaning lies within an inch of the surface. But a painting like the Rokeby Venus demands a different approach. If you stand about six feet to the right and look towards it, the reflection in the mirror addresses you directly, drawing you in as the frontal view does not. This large room is a busy thoroughfare, but for the precious first half hour or so in the morning, or late night opening on Wednesday, you are afforded an unobstructed view of these masterpieces as they were meant to be seen.

The immediate context is Spanish painting from El Greco to Murillo, but straight ahead is a room of Van Dyck, to the left is Rubens, and to the right is the Italian baroque (recently re-hung and looking magnificent). Together it is a rich context, showing Velazquez alongside his Spanish compatriots and his international peers. They gain more from Velazquez than he gains from them. It is not simply that he is much better; it is more that he is very different. Rembrandt, for example, or Titian, can be understood as part of a national milieu, with colleagues and peers, memorable teachers and worthy students. Velazquez stands out more as an international superstar far removed from his origins among minor regional artists and lacking significant followers.

London's National Gallery provides an encyclopaedic context, but even there Velazquez can only be seen in one place at one time. Having something related two rooms away helps develop a certain view of the Baroque, but we shouldn't exaggerate the impact of context. Another gallery with a fabulous Velazquez is the Frick Collection in New York, where 'Philip IV of Spain' loses nothing through being the only Velazquez in the collection. It is shown alongside sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth century paintings from across Europe, each masterpiece holding its own in an unusual context.

At the other extreme, the Prado has roomfuls of Velazquez, perhaps the greatest concentration of any top-rank artist anywhere. Here we can see his whole development, from youthful promise, through his two trips to Rome, to his final masterpieces. The main room is huge. Although it is often crowded, there is a high proportion of tour groups, and there are opportunities in between to see 'Las Meninas' in all its enigmatic glory. It's a large painting will full-sized figures in an interior, with Velazquez working on a large painting while the court goes about its business. Two figures - the King and Queen perhaps - are reflected in a mirror. We can stand in relation to the painting as they might have stood in relation to the mirror. Then we can walk from side to side, seeing different glances from the courtiers, ourselves assuming different guises as the figures seem to adopt different attitudes towards us.

'Las Meninas', emblematic of Spain and its art, fortunately will not be travelling. But it will lose its companions - the intimidating aristocrats and the endearing characters from their circle, captured with equally penetrating genius, the grand religious paintings and the intriguing mythologies, all will be pillaged and packaged and posted away.

The last major Velazquez blockbuster was less than two decades ago, in 1990. But he is a crowd puller, so concerns about damage to old paintings as they are hawked around the globe are trumped by the art world's publicity machine. The blockbuster exhibition's immediate victims are the visitors, hustled out of the ticket price for a view of a crowd. Plaudits from the critics are virtually guaranteed. But the critics see a different show from the rest of us. They get a private view, where they are flattered by the curators and given a free view of things that won't properly be seen by hoi polloi for months afterwards - not until the exhibition is over, in fact.

If you wait until the show is over, and get the timing right, you can get a cheap flight from London to the Prado for little more than the cost of seeing the Velazquez exhibition (which is £13 including the fee for the recommended advance booking). And they can be seen at the Prado. The National Gallery will take your money and give you nothing, because little will be visible amid the vast crowds that are their primary measure of success. It needs to be taken in hand. Flamboyant provocateurs at the Tate and the Guggenheim inspire more ire, but the National Gallery is even more destructive of the civilizing ethos once thought appropriate to an art gallery. The Director and the Board could do well as event planners, or theme park managers. But this travesty shows that they are ill suited to the task of managing a great gallery.

Inane blockbuster from 18 October 2006.


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