Trafalgar Square. What a hodgepodge of people. In the summer afternoon it was busy: all noise and people. At one end was a guitar and fiddle ensemble. Throughout the square street magicians and acrobats roped off large plots where their audience would gather along the perimeter, maybe two people deep if the performer was just getting started, maybe ten people deep if the performer was in the middle of an act. At another corner a man drummed on a 5-gallon tub painted with the Union Jack. Another street performer pretended to levitate in a Yoda costume, but he strangely wore red Sith hands. The scene was just all interestingly put together, but not logical.
I could have loitered at the square all day just people-watching, but everything else around Trafalgar Square is so exciting too - The National Gallery, St. Martin in the Fields, The National Portrait Gallery, and all the captivating details of Charing Cross and the Westminster area.
I had a perfunctory interest in the National Portrait Gallery. It was a curiosity more towards the great painters and how they developed their art through their day jobs, painting the rich and famous to settle basic bills. Perhaps I would have enjoyed some of it more if I had more of an interest in the people - these famous historical persons and the long paragraphs of gossip and accomplishments, legacies written in 200 words - but instead I focused on the brush strokes, the flow of color and chiarascuro. I wanted to see how Van Dyck made the pearls glow or how Holbein made the velvet shimmer. The portraits are a good way to examine the process and find the artist's mark, but in many cases the portraits are works by unknown or lesser known artists fulfilling a commission without great insight to other masterpieces.
How does art move us? The upper floors - portraits of Tudors and significant period pieces from medieval to Baroque to Victorian ages - had a pallish quiet in the galleries, a sort of respectful disinterest from most of its visitors. It generated more conversation around the Who's Who of British history rather than the art that went into the works. These were day job portraits, the slow version of today's family portraits at the local photographer's studio. What a contrast to the lower level of more contemporary works that push style and experiment with methods! The special exhibit gallery for the BP Portrait Award was abuzz with people and their low chatter - genuine interest and engagement and thought. It was a beautiful gallery, and not just because of the pieces hanging on the walls.
But oh! The National Gallery! For someone who can spend hours in reverie focused on just one piece the impeccable selection was too much. I knew I wouldn't see everything - I couldn't see everything! I could have easily filled an entire week just in the National Gallery - studying, feeling, thinking as I pored over works by Rubens, Titian, Caravaggio, Tintoretto, Velazquez, Degas, Monet, oh gosh so many! But for someone who could so happily live inside her own head I was constantly struggling with the external: the National Gallery was filled with more elbows and phone cameras pointed at grinning smirks in front of national treasures than actual art - which was unbelievable given the place was full of art! What a tragedy. A room full of Rubens and in the center on a leather-finished bench several people lounged and fiddled on their phones. In a room full of Rubens they were clearly bored. I could weep.
I had to fight to get to Van Gogh. I had to fight myself to stop spending 15 minutes in front of every painting and get on to the modern works, but when I finally came to the wall of Van Gogh...::sigh:: What perfect color, what perfect sculpting of paint! Art teachers tell you just how much texture there is and just how powerful Van Gogh's brushstrokes are, but you don't really get it until you are there, your nose inches away so you can almost smell the canvas and the thick oil paint. In some places on the landscapes the canvas peeps through, brown and coarse like aged burlap, and it's impossible not to acknowledge the rawness of the piece. Oh, the hand that pushed the paint fiercely, lovingly! It makes you want to touch it (not that I did. I definitely didn't touch it).
It certainly makes you want to scoff at those who viewed the painting just through their phone screens, taking a picture or a selfie without ever stopping to LOOK. It is a tragedy that art study - real art study and art appreciation and not just coloring or crafting - is so neglected. Instead it's just a superficial interest in something famous, gawking for less than a second at the original when you've got a print at home that is nothing like the three-dimensional canvas, elbows into the ribs of those who have actually stopped to look, exasperated sighs from those who can't get a perfect cell phone shot because my big head is in the way. Excuse me for wanting to look at the painting and not just take a picture of it. Trust me, there are way better photographs of the great paintings online than any cellphone will be able to capture. After all, it's Van Gogh. He wants you to look and notice.
And here's the other drawback of the crowds in the National Gallery: the curator has clearly done well with the placement of paintings, the balance of landscape and portrait and the exquisite flow of color from one piece to another. Cool and warm. Very cool. Very warm. Cool and warm. Rainbow across a wall. It's an oft-overlooked aspect of art museums, but such an important one: sometimes the greatest discovery in art is the sum of several pieces. How does each piece speak to you? How does the chorus of the pieces speak to you? With so many people crowded around it's almost impossible to step back and see the macro. Of course, don't get me wrong: I think it's very important and very good for there to be crowds of people in art museums. We need more crowds in every museum and every gallery! Fill the local artist lofts with art enthusiasts! Fill the exhibit opening galas with art lovers! I truly believe there's room for everyone and there is art for everyone: I just want people to actually stop, smell the sunflowers, and appreciate what they see and appreciate the others around them who are experiencing the great works as a community.
And for God's sake don't take a selfie.
(PS: You should totally check out Veronese's Respect (1575). Yeah, even in the Renaissance men knew not to take advantage of sleeping/passed out women. AHEM. Okay, for real this time, end rant).