The Virgin on the Rocks: How To Make An Exhibition Of One Painting

Or rather, how not to make an exhibition of one painting, particularly an exhibition with a £20 entry fee, of a painting which is usually available to view for free in the gallery, and is not a loan or recent acquisition.

The Virgin on the Rocks: And Nothing But

The exhibition space is arranged around a central vestibule in four rooms, with a fifth hidden behind the fourth, but the entrance is through the first room, which, being sparse on content, gives the impression the exhibition is going to be so large and full of content that this breathing space is necessary to ease one into it, like the entrances to the similarly-priced British Museum’s Manga exhibition, or the Tate Britain’s recent and almost overwhelming William Blake retrospective. In the same price range, the Olafur Eliason exhibition I recently attended at the Tate Modern also provided an ease-in and a broadly-spaced exhibition. Crucially, all three of these very different exhibitions did not leave me feeling like I’d been cynically burgled.

Room 1: Landscape

My companion and I entered through a room, which claimed it was helping us to reflect (ho ho, it is a joke, you will see in a second that this is a joke, and it is about as much fun as this exhibition) on the landscape which inspired Leonardo, as well as reminding people of one of the very few biographical facts that the casual public have about the artist: he wrote backwards.

This was achieved by piling up a lot of mirrored boxes with printed quotes by Leonardo in a few languages embedded at the back of some of them. Others just opened up onto illuminated blow-ups of landscape; towards the exit, one pile of boxes (supposedly reflecting the rocky background of the Madonna) came together to show a partial image of the cartoon for the painting.

It is at this point that I need to stress: the gallery also possesses one of the preparatory drawings for this painting. I have seen it on display before, in a little recess in the Sainsbury Wing, with a bench for contemplation in the dim room. It was, at the time, an enjoyable and free experience. The actual drawing was not featured in the exhibition.

Room 2: Conservators’ Studio

This room had promise; at this stage we fully expected the exhibition to continue expanding and deepening the context of Leonardo’s work and the work of the gallery in relation to paintings, an area of some interest to me. The studio has a fake skylight made up of video screens which compare, in close-up, the pre-and-post conservation painting. There are desks recreating the workspaces of conservators, their equipment and their process. There are guides to the science of painting conservation.

The centrepiece of the room is another display screen upon which various scans of the painting, using different techniques, are screened, outlining how it was possible to determine that a completely different (pencil/ink) version of the painting existed underneath. There are comparisons between the first finished version on this topic–hanging in the Louvre–and the version in possession of the National Gallery, showing their similarities. Another screen above explains the names and processes used in the scanning. A voiceover explains again, and adds context. All very exciting…

I am keen for galleries to talk more publicly about their work. I am keen for them to showcase the methods used and the challenges faced by conservators, and also to provide method and tool context of the work of the artists themselves (the V&A’s ceramics gallery, which I had visited the day before, provides excellent examples of this as well as a frankly exhausting amount of hand and factory-produced ceramics, and a resident ceramicists’ workshop).

I will even take this in a paid exhibition as contextualisation, rather than in a permanent and free installation (and not squirrelled away in the schools’ area either) as I think would be rather more actively educational to the public. But the rest of the exhibition has to live up to this promise.

Room 3. Light and Dark

Once again we were faced with a sparseness of content. Perhaps it is just because I have spent so much time in museum collections in buildings which make the most of their space (the rest of the National Gallery included); perhaps it is a fondness for tiny, crammed museums such as the pre-flood Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, but I find dead space in exhibition rooms to be bordering on the criminal.

This room provided method context once more. An illuminated image of one of Leonardo’s notebooks showed a diagram of the human face with rays of light hitting it in different places, each numbered.

The rest of the room was devoted to explaining this diagram’s application, in two parts: one was a large high-res screen with an interactive pedestal at ideal viewing distance from it, allowing the viewer to move the light source around and witness how this changed the shadows and colours in a supposedly three-dimensional recreation of something akin to the painting–a bit like a highly evolved version of messing around with light sources in Photoshop.

The other was three boxes full of white objects: one a bust, one a “rock”, and one some geometric solids. Each one again allowed the viewers to manipulate light sources and compare how these changed the shadows and the look of the solids.

And that was all.

Room 4: Imaginary Content

This was the room that slaughtered the remains of my goodwill towards this exhibition.

Perhaps in an attempt to take a cue from the Mithraeum at the Bloomberg Space (which is, I should stress, free), this room laid out the space in which the painting had originally been intended to be displayed. For some reason it did this with hanging fabric screens, illuminations, and some pretty but largely depthless gilded line drawings on the surrounding walls of the cityscape. The room came across as empty, irrelevant, and a waste. The majority of people rushed through it, or took a couple of selfies and moved on.

Any number of actions could have been taken to improve the impact of this room and retain the purpose of it. It would have been the perfect point in the exhibition to display the pencil drawing, for example. The talk of the location and the building design would have been a brilliant juncture to display Leonardo’s building designs, showing that he understood architecture from a construction standpoint that other artists lacked. It would have been a place to talk about the influence of place and of culture on Leonardo, or to provide context of Italian city states and patronage in the 15th/16th century.

Instead it was wasted on what looked a lot like a lack of imagination and some serious corner-cutting.

Room 5: The Virgin

Perhaps to recreate the sense of awe and marvel supposed to be associated with the centrepiece (and the only painting in the entire exhibition) this room was down a short corridor and accompanied by recordings of choral music.

The painting itself is displayed in frame, against a moulded backdrop, on which a long loop of different potential accompanying sculptures (wooden, stone, panelled friezes, plain, polychromed, etc, etc) is playing. Watching the animation, however, detracts from the painting itself.

Thankfully, the painting is impossible to cheapen: it is a beautiful work of art and would continue to be a beautiful work of art if it was sitting at the back of a junk-shop illuminated by a dusty bulb. Perhaps ironically, there would also be fewer distractions and more to contemplate about the image if it was displayed under those conditions than as it is displayed in this exhibition.

World Unrocked by This Virgin

For a national institution and major draw to the city to trip itself this badly with ill-thought-out technology inclusion, content debasement, and space waste is a profound disappointment. I feel quite bad for the tourists who have come with limited time and money to spend and chosen to spend it on this; at least I can come back and see the painting–as I have several times before–in its usual place in a small room in the Sainsbury Wing, crowded with people and in no way diminished by this as it hangs over their heads, freely visible and less chaotically-arraigned than it is at the moment.

Considering that many other galleries and museums have bigger, better, more-indepth attempts at similar displays, for free, this is a significant misstep.

The National Gallery has excelled itself, in the past, with free miniature exhibitions, with lunchtime talks, and with larger, more fulsome retrospectives (last year’s After Caravaggio springs to mind). This exhibition is an embarrassment and hopefully an aberration–which has actively put me off going to see more National Gallery exhibitions until they can resolve whatever it is they think they’re doing here.

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