After watching and accompanying the last student climate strike demo up Whitehall to Trafalgar Square- recognising the superfluousness of my presence as an aging observer and needing the loo and a bit of mental decompression – I drop into the National Gallery.
Unwilling to disrespect it by just using it as a toilet stop – I decide that every time I go in I will take a longer look than usual at a couple of pictures and really think about them.
With no method or focus I wander through galleries full of vast swirling renaissance canvasses, epic classical dramas in operatic glowing oils that can merge into an acid trip of gloriousness if you keep your eyes unfocused. A trip in the key of baroque.
One gallery is bare. No paintings, no people. Dusty, echoey space with nothing to look at. Just deep green wallpaper, rather faded and dog eared in places – not renovated for years, tired and well used like everything else in the public realm; disguised when in use by all the heritage that obscures it.
Scorn, by Veronese catches my eye. Part of a series of four paintings called Allegories of Love, painted in the 1570’s. A semi naked man – wrapped in a shiny pink cloth that coils around his body like a snake; suggesting movement and sensuality while carefully covering his genitals – lays prostrate on the steps of a temple; while, standing above him, Cupid wallops him with his bow. Cupid looks determined and righteous. Above and behind Cupid on the temple wall is a faded and broken gargoyle of Pan – god of excess in all things – staring away into the distance with sightless stone eyes, as if he can’t bear to watch. He is the colour of ash. Next to the man’s outstretched beseeching hand – and on a falling right to left diagonal line from Pan at the top right, through Cupid in the centre – are two women at the bottom left. The one closest to the man – and staring at him as if she would be fancy him if Cupid wasn’t beating him up – has her breasts bared as a symbol of temptation herself. Her companion – taking her by the hand and leading her away from temptation – is wearing a veil; and looking back through and beyond Cupid – presumably to something heavenly going on inside her own head.
The notes in the Gallery talk about the possible torments of feelings that are scorned, love that is unrequited. They do not refer to the historical context – that the 1570’s were the eighth decade into the first pandemic of syphilis. That the greyness of Pan and the whiplash blows of Cupid’s bow could symbolise the diseased consequences of sexual athletics, and the divided response of the women the conflict between desire and fear. The bare breasted woman looks torn between attraction and disgust. Her chaste companion looks as though she is averting her eyes because because she knows she needs to.
The ambiguity of this overtly moral painting may have only been possible because Veronese lived and worked in commercial, republican Venice, rather than straight laced Imperial Spain or any part of the Holy Roman Empire. “We painters take the same liberties as poets or mad men” was his rather brave response to the local branch of the Inquisition – when they pulled him in for questioning after he’d put jokes into a painting of the Last Supper. Laughter, it would seem, implicitly being the work of the devil. He avoided punishment by changing the title to “The Feast in the House of Levi”. which is one way to do it. The expectations of the Spanish Inquisition may well not have allowed him to get away with that.
You can see the painting and a short version of the gallery notes here.
The Portrait of a young Woman by Bordone is from a little earlier in the century and could probably be sub titled “He’s behind you.”. A very peevish and frightened looking young woman with a pursed mouth and flushed cheeks, dressed in shimmering pink silk, holds something mysterious in her right hand while glancing anxiously to her left. The unseen object she is holding is on the end of a chain that wraps around her waist and dangles in front of it. Is it a key, a note, a love philter?
Most of the background is a gloomy, heavy columned chamber, but in the top left of the painting, in the same direction as her look but unseen by it, is a picture within the picture. Out of a window, a perilous looking stair case with no banisters or balustrades – looking like one of Escher’s labyrinths – is topped by a gallery. Standing at the top in the distance is a man who looks as though he has suddenly frozen, after spying the young woman from behind. This is painted small and hazy, but there is a disturbing sense of menace about it. Is he a stalker, a forbidden lover, a spy for her family? She seems aware that someone is behind her but not sure who or where.
National Gallery notes here.