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Sex and Spies at the National Gallery

Updated: Sep 4, 2020

The National Gallery in London has reopened!

At 11am on Wednesday, first in the queue, welcomed by the paparazzi, we re-entered the Holy of Holies. On the menu, facemasks, antibacterial gel and arrows (a bit like H&M). We’re in the post-lockdown era.

First observation: it’s quiet. Super quiet. To be honest, this was the first time one could wander through the gallery without having to fight your way through a sea of tourists. And that’s rather nice.

Second, well ... the different routes are difficult to navigate (had to negotiate with one of the attendants to enter the room containing the Holbeins, their colleague inside confessed their confusion why no visitors had come). Once you have missed an arrow, you can’t go back. Despite searching for Artemisia, she was never found.

Third, some rooms are blocked off by a rope so you can only admire the artworks from a distance. That’s the case for da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks, which is so far away that myopic eyes like mine are left in (blurred) limbo. Some works inevitably hang on the walls either side of the rope, making them impossible to look at.

Fourth, it’s not obvious but the Nicolaes Maes exhibition is open! The first retrospective in the UK about the lesser known yet successful Dutch Golden Age painter, it’s free and has more artworks than the fee-paying Titian exhibition (which contains SEVEN paintings only!). Three rooms are devoted to different parts of Maes’ career, with the first one corresponding to the beginning of his working life when, being a student of Rembrandt, he followed his master by painting biblical scenes. The second room focuses on the artist's scenes of daily life, which were popular with the merchants of the time. The third reflects Maes's complete career change, enabling him to become rich by concentrating on portraits of wealthy patrons.

Well, money isn’t everything, and the really interesting artworks are in the second room. That’s where Nicolas Maes became creative and introduced a naughty eavesdropper into his daily scenes, toying with the viewer. The voyeurs spy upon the lovers in the paintings; it’s quite something to be in this very dark room where the half-light is part of the game, to witness private scenes in total complicity with the eavesdropper inside the painting. We become voyeurs too. Rrrrrr! Nicolaes Maes: Dutch Master of the Golden Age can be seen at the National Gallery until 20 September.

This exhibition is great, but the real show about the Dutch Golden Age I’d die to see is HERE: Black in Rembrandt’s Time, which has been extended until 6 September at the Rembrandthuis in Amsterdam. Will the exhibition tour abroad, please?

Fifth, Titian: Love, Desire, Death has been extended until 17 January 2021. Alleluja! The first time ever that the series of paintings commissioned by Philip of Spain (the future King Philip II) have been brought together. Even Titian never saw them side by side, since he sent each artwork to Philip as soon as it was finished; The Death of Acteon never left the artist’s studio, was it even completed? All the paintings are same size (Danaë was trimmed in the 18th century, apparently it had been damaged), and for the time they are extremely erotic (nowadays we might regard them as soft porn). The models are prostitutes (since Titian was a regular customer at Venice’s brothels), naked, naked, naked, with constant references to sex, sex, sex (observe Danaë parting her legs in the golden rain and the splashing fountain in Diana and Calisto).

A downside of this exhibition? Well, as has been said, there are only seven paintings. Instead of the thumbnails on the labels (some pointing at examples in the next room), and the reproduction of all seven artworks in the antechamber, it would have been good to have seen other works by the artist, to have placed them in his wider context. It would also have been interesting to learn how the paintings left the court of Philip II of Spain to end up in museums around the world. We know, for instance, that Danaë was captured by the British Navy in 1813 on a boat containing Spanish paintings and presented to the Duke of Wellington. Do admire this one, it’s not part of the Apsley House collection that can normally be viewed by the public.

Conclusion? The National Gallery has re-opened, that's fantastic news, but I can’t wait to see the Artemisia show! The exhibition has been postponed until 3 October 2020 (it runs until 24 January 2021). I’m waiting impatiently to see it.

Karen Eeckman for Cradles and Labels

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