Even in our increasingly secular times (as the latest census attests), Christmas remains for many a moment of reflection and tradition, an opportunity to reconnect with ancient ways of doing things. Not, apparently, for the National Gallery, where Advent – quite brilliantly – has become the season of innovation.
Two years ago, for example, it unveiled several midnight-blue fabric pods, each tapered like a magician’s hat, in which, on glossy screens, visitors could watch a 13-minute “experience” of Jan’s altarpiece. Gossaert The Adoration of the Kings. She imagines if Carols by King’s attempted something so bizarre.
Now comes her latest effort to engage a digital native demographic, Fruits of the Spirit: Art from the Heart, on which she has partnered with various institutions across Britain, from Plymouth to Dundee. For this virtual exhibition, which can be accessed free of charge on the gallery’s website, nine well-known works from the National’s collection have been selected, including Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait and Claude Monet’s Water Lilies, to exemplify the ” positive attributes” (love, kindness, self-control, etc.) from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
Each was then paired with a painting from elsewhere (Monet’s Water Lilies, for example, is juxtaposed against a Canterbury Cathedral altarpiece) and ‘hung’ within an octagonal, computer-generated capriccio , with hardwood floors, sage green walls, and a huge oculus that offers an uplifting view of the blue skies above.
The functionality is impressive and easy to use. Viewers can rotate 360 degrees, glimpsing all the paintings arranged in small chapel-like bays beyond the semi-circular arches. Even benches appear here and there – superfluous, of course, but which add to the illusion – although one lesson from this experiment is that curatorial principles should still be respected. In its software-conjured corner, Monet’s vast canvas feels cramped.
Less successful (as the silly subtitle of the exhibition might suggest) is the analysis of the exhibited works. Intended to “explore topics vital to well-being”, this has a bubbling, meandering quality that reminded me of Radio 4’s Thought of the Day.
Thomas Gainsborough’s sweet image of his daughters with a cat, for example, is said to represent “kindness.” Yet, after a brief description, the wall-text invokes the Hindu concept of “Mardava” (meekness), before riling the Gainsborough girls by suggesting that the cat “deserves” kinder treatment. Huh?
Together with a summer view of Mornington Crescent by Frank Auerbach, Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers represent “joy”. But the audio guide points out that its “seed-heads” are now “beyond their peak”, which does not sound like a reason for joy, before evoking two different concepts (“trust” and “hope”). And no one knows what exactly Van Eyck has to do with “generosity”.
The overriding impression, then, is that each painting has been steeped in a vat of balm-like verbiage. Instead of soothing the soul, it drives the eyes crazy.
From tomorrow until April 30th. Details: nationalgallery.org.uk