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Introducing our ‘in residence’ series: Madonna del Prato

9 December 2011

Molly Flatt explains why we don't need to go to blockbuster exhibitions to find amazing art. Just take a peek in our national collections, there are plenty of treasures to be found...

Perhaps the recession makes us eager to feel we’re getting more for our money. Perhaps James Cameron, Peter Jackson and the other masters of the CGI epic have led us to expect nothing less. Or perhaps the arts marketing industry has simply got really good at fuelling the hype machine. Whatever the reason, we are most definitely in the era of the arts blockbuster, where every new exhibition has to come packaged as this year’s ‘major event.’
 
Back in May, the Guardian’s Stephen Moss asked ‘Is the blockbuster exhibition dead?’, citing the Tate’s recent Gaugin exhibition – which took record sales but suffered brutal overcrowding – and the National Gallery’s current star show Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, for which the number of admissions has been reduced from 230 per half-hour slot to 180. He was responding to comments by Colin Tweedy, the chief executive of the Prince of Wales's charity Arts & Business, who in March called on gallery bosses to innovate new, less troublesome models for showcasing great artists.
 
It seems that nobody was listening. Right now we have, to name but a few, John Martin: Apocalypse for Tate Britain and Gerhard Richter’s Panorama for Tate Modern, both pulling in breathless critical acclaim as well as ticket sales; Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement at the Royal Academy of Arts trying to reinstate the painter as a revolutionary rather than a sentimental obsessed with little girls; and Grayson Perry’s joyful, subversive and sprawling The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, a curation of objects for the British Museum. And in the run up to the Olympics we are being promised a slew of blockbusters that will demonstrate London’s cultural greatness – even though all they may end up demonstrating is our lack of decent crowd control.
 
But there is a solution to Tweedy’s problem sitting right before our eyes; a free and fulfilling antidote to the constant round of must-see top-fives. It is called the permanent collection, and London is rich in impressive and eclectic examples. If you never saw another exhibition again, you could fill your days a hundred times over with some of the most beautiful art ever produced – in spacious, uncluttered spaces, without a time limit, and very often for free.
 
So this is the first in London Calling’s ‘in residence’ series of features, in which we will aim to shine a spotlight on some of the permanent artistic gems nestling in our capital’s galleries and museums. Some of them will have changed the world; some of them may have interesting histories or geneses; some of them might be highly relevant to our times; and some of them might just be personal favourites which we hope will resonate. The joy of these pieces is that they can be visited and revisited at your leisure, free from a specific exhibition gloss or narrative. They might become objects that change and grow with you, evolving as part of your life, as they have mine.
 
Let’s start with the Madonna del Prato, or Madonna of the Meadow, by Giovanni Bellini, tucked away in Room 1 on the ground floor of the National Gallery. For me, this simple religious scene is the most beautiful example of a culturally laden genre that dominated centuries of European art.
 
For sure, there are many more famous Madonnas, some of them in the same room. Barocci’s Madonna del Gato (‘of the cat’) is certainly livelier, showing a warm domestic scene with a rosebud-lipped Mary and benign, grandfatherly Joseph, cuddling John the Baptist, who is holding a goldfinch, and Christ, who is teasing a ginger cat; but for me it is all a touch too chocolate-box. Madonna dei Garofani  (‘of the pinks’) cost the gallery £22 million to keep in the UK in 2003 and, despite some controversy, many believe she is worth every pound, exemplifying as she does Raphael’s unique ability to render flesh beautifully tender, alive and lit from within. Nevertheless, I find it hard to equate this Renaissance princess in her elegant draped room with the poor outcast of Biblical legend.
 
This is where Bellini’s Mary trumps the competition. For in his painting we see a pensive, half-bewildered girl, looking down at the child balanced awkwardly on her lap, genuinely wondering how he got there. In her, we see love tinged with fear; foreknowledge of death tempered with reverence for creation; bone weariness kept upright by a gut-tight sense of responsibility. That sparse agrarian landscape, within which she is stranded, throneless, kneeling in the dust, is simultaneously genetic and apocalyptic. Mary’s world, and ours, Bellini seems to say, is about to end – but it has also only just begun.
 
I may be a heathen unbeliever, but the double whammy of carefully imagined humanity harnessed to a huge legacy of artistic endeavour, pain and hope is still hard to beat. In the background, a crane kills a snake, in an archetypal battle of good and evil, and a death-pertaining vulture perches in a tree. Symbolic they may be, but these creatures are painted so precisely and realistically, and fit so beautifully into the harsh natural reality of their setting, that the painting manages to co-exist both as lesson and work of exemplary art without the usual conflict (goldfinch and kitten, I mean you).
 
And that’s without the colours. Against that backdrop of subtle rural greens and duns, the conic, perfect blue of the Madonna’s robes are only made more beautiful by the simplicity of their design. Her pomegranate red under gown is a gorgeously shaded tease, an incongruously rich forewarning of the passion to come. In contrast to this vibrancy, the Christ child’s pale nakedness reflects the colour of the earth, the cows and the buildings behind: humble, simple flesh, unadorned with majesty, soon to return to the soil from which he was formed.
 
She is waiting for you, and you don’t need to pre-book or part with a penny. Go look.
 
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