I thought as I was a loose end this week, I’d remind myself what London actually has to offer. I know I live in London, but I’m apt to forget that I’m actually in London. If that makes any sense of course. So I thought I’d take a trip into town (all of about 20 minutes) and visit the National Gallery.
Ok so a visit there isn’t a rare occurrence. I go pretty regularly (and not just to use the loo as my Lover pointed out), I love getting lost in the 18th Century paintings, or coming across rooms that I’ve never been to before – this does happen: the National, British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum behave like Hogwarts on a bad day.
However, I decided that on this visit I’d see what the 19th Century galleries had to offer – or as I like to call it, the Impressionist Gallery of Horror.
You may ask why I call it this – it’s not horrific in the truest sense and it’s not even filled with terrible paintings. It’s just that it’s full of the world’s best known paintings and is therefore chock full of people – usually so full it’s always put me off. I firmly believe there’s no point in meandering and getting some culture if you can’t actually see what is meant to be the culture. Also, lets face it, Impressionist (and I include the post-impressionists in this, it’s just splitting hairs) paintings are waiting room pictures. You know the type: the inoffensive calming variety, meant to jolly us along whilst waiting an eternity to the see the doctor or dentist. And boy do we all know at least one. Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Seurat, Pissarro, Renoir – I could go on.
Anyway. These galleries also hold the holy grail of pictures, something so common and vilified that even Allo’ Allo’ called it the cracked vase with the big daisies and we knew what they were talking about. Yes, The National Gallery has a… Sunflowers by Van Gogh. That perennially popular painting adorning millions of teenage bedrooms, waiting room walls and people who have think it’s a “nice” picture and want to show they’re “cultured”. Ok, I’ll admit – I was one of those teenagers. I remember only too vividly the A1 sized poster above my bed. I thought I was the bee’s knees. So I can understand how people feel about it. Yet I turned away from it, like anything that becomes overly popular – it’s just what I do. It’s the hipster in me.
So on this visit, I threw myself into the lion’s den and wanted a fresh look at the paintings. I wanted to see if I would feel any different about them or whether I would feel ever so slightly dead to them.
The first thing I will say is that I was very pleasantly surprised, almost shocked. My first impression (forgive the pun!) was the rich jewel-like colours that assault you as soon as you enter the galleries. I don’t mean that these are the psychedelic rock of pictures (I’ll leave that to Pop Art and Surrealism). Impressionists knew how to use colour effectively but in a very calming way. Calming is probably the best word I can use to describe the paintings within the galleries. I felt like I was in a very vivid sunny afternoon dream. Nature, Industrialism, parties, and shopping trips – nothing was off-limits. Swirls of colour, enigmatic smiles, meek bathing ladies, grand Parisian stations – all modern life is contained there. However it felt like there was no need to rush. each painting sucked me in – like a magic eye picture there was always something new to spot within each painting.
I’ll admit that the galleries were busy, yet amongst all the bustle I felt alone and in my own bubble. This is art that is understandable and was painted to be understood. I never once stood in front of a painting and thought “what the hell is this”, and I suppose in its way this is why it’s so accessible and on so many walls. What you see is what you get. I think that’s what I’d forgotten and quite possibly turned my nose up at. Like my Mother says: “it’s good to be high-brow and read the classics, but occasionally you have to get down and dirty and read a crap novel”. Perhaps I should have followed her advice and applied that to art too.
I have to say I felling love with the National Gallery’s latest Impressionist acquisition: a Monet’s waterlilies at dusk. A painting chock full of royal purples, sunburnt oranges and vivid yellows. I spent a good 10 minutes just looking. If I could have set up a chaise-langue and some sort of luxury tent around me I could have quite happily have spent 10 years just looking. Unfortunately my reverie was disturbed by a little Japanese lady who wanted to take 1001 photos. Monet really knew how to tug at the ‘ole naturalism heart-strings.
Which brings me to the main attraction. The ‘cracked vase with the big daisies’ aka The Sunflowers. Reader, I fell back in love. It’s just a simple picture – ok, so it’s a still life, but not a still life as we know it. There’s just something about it that can’t fail to make you happy or raise a smile. In this grey and dreary corner of the world that is GB – it speaks of summer, freshly cut grass, bees buzzing, open windows and lighter nights. Van Gogh really knew how to sock it to people. Ok, so the people of the time didn’t appreciate it – but boy do we now.
I’ll give this to the 19th Century galleries at the National Gallery – it’s pretty decent colour therapy.
If you ever find yourself in London I really recommend giving the gallery a go. Even if you’re not particularly into art, I wouldn’t say the impressionist gallery is more about how the pictures make you feel rather than how you think. These pictures aren’t head-scratchy at all. Life can feel a little crazy, being a tourist is just plain knackering, but trust me – even a quick 30 minutes in the Impressionist galleries will recharge the batteries.
And with views from the gallery like this – who wouldn’t want to come:
(And to my Canadian readers – you have an amazing High Commission here opposite the gallery, so a visit is a must)
The Knitty Gritty:
The National Gallery – London, UK
Closed 1 January and 24–26 December
FREE!!! Yes, we don’t make you pay to see art in Blighty.
Embankment – Circle, District, Northern and Bakerloo Lines
Westminster – Jubilee, Circle and District Lines (this is the nearest tube station with wheelchair access).