Culture Corner: A Visit to the National Gallery (London)

By Bernie Langs

Leonardo’s “greatest drawing in the world” in London’s National Gallery (Wikipedia)

I sometimes joke that the value of world currency should not be pegged to the dollar or to gold but to something truly valuable: paintings, drawings, and sculpture. And the arts of greatest value, in my opinion, are those from the Medieval and Renaissance periods. What, one may wonder, is the basis of such a standard? What is it that I find in art that is intrinsically worth more than a diamond or a vintage automobile or a house on the Riviera? What makes art priceless as a so-called commodity? Art, and paintings in particular, offer a sustenance for the mind not found elsewhere, except perhaps in classical music, or, I must add, in the sublime music of The Beatles. Paintings are time travelers from another age. You stand before the very piece of creation that someone hundreds of years ago stood before as well, with only the scars of time (and a shift in cultural vision) to differentiate the experience. Of greater importance than the historical education offered, the mind’s eye is treated to the detailed expression of the geniuses of the past and one learns, in a bit more than a heartbeat, how these individuals toyed with the very concept of seeing the world in varying dimensions. Dimensions, that’s the rub.

Kenneth Clark, in his book, Landscape Into Art, notes the following on how Leonardo da Vinci’s work coalesces through an interplay of the conscious and the unconscious mind: “How highly Leonardo valued a free play of the imagination is shown in the most famous passage in his Treatise On Painting, where he says…‘that you should look at certain walls stained with damp or at stones of uneven color. If you have to invent some setting you will be able to see in these the likeness of divine landscapes, adorned with mountains, ruins, rocks, woods, great plains, hills and valleys in great variety; and then again you will see there battles and strange figures in violent action, expressions of faces and clothes and an infinity of things which you will be able to reduce to their complete and proper forms. In such walls the same thing happens as in the sound of bells, in whose strokes you may find every word which you can imagine.’ Later he repeats this suggestion in slightly different form, advising the painter to study not only marks on walls, but also the embers of the fire, or clouds or mud, or other similar objects from which you will find most admirable ideas . . . because from a confusion of shapes the spirit is quickened to new inventions.”

I quote this at length to strengthen the point that one can view painting itself as mere flat, two-dimensional jottings of colors on a canvas, or one can take time with a piece and see it unfold into a new and completely unexpected world. On my recent trip to London’s National Gallery, I was surprised to find what I’ve always considered the greatest drawing (it’s actually dubbed a “cartoon”) in the world—Leonardo’s The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist. Much like his unfinished, near-monochrome painting of the Adoration of the Magi in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, there is a great confusion in the composition, especially in the background and foreground, and the viewer can be left to “fill in the blanks” as the mind absorbs the artist’s many flowing, graceful swirls and curls.

The National Gallery boasts an almost embarrassing number of painted masterpieces. After the shock of being pounded by the likes of Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne where Ariadne’s arm and hand point absently in the direction of the stars of a mystic, scintillating sky, after viewing Jan Van Eyck’s iconic work The Arnolfini Portrait and standing dumbfounded in front of his so-called Self Portrait, I actually had to give the small laugh of the overwhelmed as I entered a gallery with rare and rarified works by the Renaissance genius Piero della Francesca. There, in one room, was his Nativity and his Baptism of Christ, which are so often reproduced in art history overview books. The most shocking thing was the space in which the singing angels of the Nativity stood. That is something that cannot be communicated on a postcard or in a photo on the page of a book. I can’t really describe it either. These angels were standing almost out of the painting, like a hologram, in a space that could only have been created by the mind of Piero, who was known for his advancements in the uses of perspective. And thus again and again at the National Gallery, I was treated to such spatial, emotional, and spiritual playing of dimension (and perhaps time) by the geniuses of the past.

To name just two other highlights, I was stunned by Raphael’s work, Saint Catherine of Alexandria. The gracefulness and beauty of the painting was unexpected, given that I sometimes in the past have found Raphael to be a little too picturesque. Everything from the subtle coloring of the Saint’s garments to the quiet, yet forceful way the figure emerges from the landscape emitted a great power over me. The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian by Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo is a downright force of nature. The incredible background of a countryside landscape featured behind the suffering Saint is painted in such detail on the large canvas, it defies one to believe it was possible for these artists to construct.

My head was swimming by the time I left the National Gallery. Swimming with not only the dizziness of having taken in so many top shelf works of art, but with ideas on the possibilities of representing personalized visions of reality to others on such a magnificent scale. If you want to “stand on the shoulders of giants” to gain new perspectives on life, I recommend you head to the nearest museum and take more than a beat in front of a great painting.

September 2013