Sandro Botticelli -The Virgin adoring the sleeping Christ child (‘The Wemyss Madonna’) c1485
Titian – Venus rising from the sea (Venus Anadyomene) c1520-25
I’ve just returned from a dash to Sydney where I managed to fit in a visit to The Greats: masterpieces from the national Galleries of Scotland exhibition at the NSW Art Gallery. While standing almost nose-to-nose with the lady in A woman in bed by Rembrandt, I realised I’ve never before experienced intimacy with such masterworks. For a masterwork-virgin like me, with only about 70 works, the standing-staring-looking interested fatigue at this exhibition didn’t have time to set in. And although it was nicely busy, I could be alone for minutes at a time with my favourites, and favourites there were.
How could I have foreseen that I’d fall in love with Botticelli’s The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child (c1485)? The serenity, love and absorption on the Virgin Mary’s face wrapped me in a blanket of oxytocin gooiness. How does a painter, sorry, a Great, do that? And I wondered, was Jesus a good baby–did he sleep through the night? Go through the “terrible two’s”?
I’m not particularly given over to biblical themes, but the painting of Jesus slumped on a wooden chair, as if just come inside on one of our heatwave days, appealed (Christ in the house of Martha and Mary, by Johannes Vermeer c1654–55). A woman kneels at his feet while another places a plater of bread on the table beside him. According to the painting’s notes, she’s a little testy because she’s doing all the domesticity stuff while Jesus and the kneeled woman are engaged in spiritual communion. I empathised with the testy one, until I read that Jesus ticks her off for being too concerned with worldly matters and less with the divine. The notes don’t say though, if Jesus, after his sermonising, partook of the bread, thus reducing, in my book, the weightiness of the spray he gave the testy one.
It was while standing in front of a Monet that it registered – these Greats are masters of light.
Claude Monet – Poplars on the river Epte 1891
In fact, rather than the paintings absorbing light from their surrounds, they appeared to generate it. If I’d stood long enough in front of Venus rising from the sea by Titan (c1520–25) I think I would’ve walked out with sunburn – I do burn easily though (English-Celt ancestry). However, I didn’t observe any occupational health and safety warnings about this unusual hazard.
The light emanation quality was emphasised for me when I sat on the bench seat in front of a ceiling high Niagara Falls, from the American side by Frederic Edwin Church, (1867), almost a power plant in itself. Beside me were a young woman and her boyfriend. She was glowing, almost radioactively, her bare limbs showing this off to good effect. Her boyfriend, though, was less radioactive, his bearded hipster cool, presumably, soaking up handfuls of the painting’s photonic emissions.
The Scottish Greats were set off to the side in a room of their own, away from the multi-national intruders, showing that the in-group, out-group thing has been around, at least as long as the Greats were of shaving age. The Scottish paintings were of two kinds: lordly looking men in kilts, holding staffs or other unnecessary items, gazing into the distance at who-knows-what, and landscapes with shaggy cattle plodding hillside paths. If these paintings are something to go by, nothing much happened in Scotland until the Bay City Rollers.
The ticket entry included the use of an audio device, providing commentary. The rich male voice, with restrained excitement, told us gossipy details of each Great after giving the obligatory blurb on their painting. He was most breathy when telling us of the high society beauty 27-year old Lady Agnew of Lochnaw painted by John Singer Sargent (1892). After this painting was unveiled, he told us, both she and the painter became celebrities – she accorded party invitations for the rest of her days, and he endorsed as a favoured portraitist of high society.
Right then, I thought, Instagram’s not new, it’s just been sped up in recent times.
The audio commentary became redundant, or overridden more correctly, when a bespectacled, filmy-scarfed woman, presumably a gallery staffer entered. She wore a chunky, stony necklace so long that, sensibly, it could’ve doubled as a lassoed form of restraint during a gallery scuffle, while waiting for security. Trailing behind her was a sizable entourage of assorted admirers.
She moved with atomic swiftness from one favoured pic to another. With gushing authority, she shared intimate details of her favoured Greats, as if she had known them personally, her sotto voce remarks on these occasions bringing forth chesty chuckles from the all-sorts.
What I noticed most, though, was her, ‘We’ve only five minutes left, but I must show you…’ which she repeated several times over as she departed from one painting for the next. It appeared, common space-time laws didn’t apply in this gallery universe. The five minutes dictum did eventually morph into, ‘We’ve no time left but you must see…’ Thankfully, time did expire, and with that, she and the allsorts vaporised through the exit, leaving those of us with more tortoise-like sensibilities to resume our reveries.
My summary of The Greats: you bet!
Jean-Antoine Watteau – Fêtes Vénitiennes (Venetian pleasures) 1718-19
Sir Henry Raeburn – Reverend Robert Walker skating on Duddington Loch c1795