Artemisia will be worth the wait

A unique art exhibition awaits an audience

On Art

There are many deserving people for whom we should currently be sparing a thought, and curators ought to be added to the list. The art world has adapted to the new world order with a flurry of innovations: collections and exhibitions such as Tate Modern’s Warhol show are fully accessible online, talks and lectures are being streamed, the public can curate its own exhibitions from digital archives, artists are uploading videos of themselves at work, auction houses and commercial galleries have shifted sales to online only. What none of this can do, however, is replicate the experience of visiting an exhibition in the flesh.

This void is felt particularly acutely at the National Gallery. Its spring season offered two irresistibly come-hither exhibitions that have now been stopped in their tracks. The first, Titian: Love, Desire, Death” opened on 16 March, three days before the gallery closed its doors.

The show, seen by a very lucky few, reunites for the first time since the late sixteenth century all six of the mythological paintings known as the Poesie made by Titian from 1551 for Philip II of Spain. The suite is regarded as one of Western art’s greatest achievements and the National managed to secure pictures from the Prado, Boston and the Wallace Collection to complete the set. Now they hang, sumptuous but unviewed, on the gallery’s walls — all dressed up and nowhere to go.

The problem now is dealing with the knock-on effects of the current mothballing

The second show is the National’s major retrospective of the work of Artemisia Gentileschi which was due to open on 4 April. Artemisia (1593-c1654) was the most celebrated female painter of the first half of the seventeenth century but an artist whose achievements have been overshadowed by her rape by a fellow painter in 1611 and his subsequent trial.

The exhibition was intended to shift her profile beyond this and show her range as a painter and why she was in such demand by influential patrons during her lifetime. It was a project sparked by the National Gallery’s acquisition in 2018 of her Self-portrait as St Catherine of Alexandria, 1615-17. That autumn, Letizia Treves, curator of later Italian, Spanish and French seventeenth-century paintings, started to put out feelers for loans for an exhibition and was met with a hugely positive response from both private and public collections. As she says, “Pretty much everything we asked for, we got.”

So the exhibition-making wheels started turning and by mid-March most of the work had been done: the exhibition build in the Sainsbury Wing was completed, temporary walls built and painted, vitrines constructed, lighting readied for final adjustments; exhibition posters were printed and ready for unfurling; the picture texts were written; the catalogue was published; the 3D computer hang and life-size paper hang, trial runs to visualise the exhibition before the paintings arrive, were completed; talks had been arranged, invitations sent.

Pictures generally start arriving in the two weeks prior to opening but two of the loans were already at the gallery — one for technical analysis, one for reframing — and others were on their way across Europe. And then everything stopped.

Surprisingly, says Treves, the feeling was one of “overwhelming relief”: if the show couldn’t happen properly then it was best to wait until it could. “The private lenders have been incredibly flexible. No one has withdrawn their work from the exhibition and they have gone above and beyond in trying to make it happen. It became clear though that neither they nor their pictures could be in London for the opening and they are happy to wait until they can.” For the moment, she says, lenders have “pride in seeing their picture in the catalogue — and since the catalogue is already available, when the exhibition does open the visitors will be ferociously well-informed. They’ll have visited it in their minds.”

The problem now is future scheduling and dealing with the knock-on effects of the current mothballing. The National’s own Artemisia painting was due to go on loan to America in the autumn and that may now not happen, while the gallery’s big autumn exhibition, a five-hundredth-anniversary celebration of Raphael, was scheduled to open on 3 October. Some of the paintings are currently on the walls of the blockbuster show at the Quirinale in Rome which opened on 5 March and promptly closed: what happens when it reopens and paintings have to be in two places at once? And how far into 2021, and beyond, will the scheduling ripples be felt? “It is impossible to have these conversations at the moment,” says Treves.

She is, however, confident that things will work out: “Artemisia will be worth the wait.” She adds: “It sounds a cliché I know, but the museum community is a big family.” She must, I suggest, worry about the National’s own paintings marooned in foreign climes, such as the 60 pictures — among them Van Gogh’s Sunflowers — currently in Japan for a “Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London” show. “We can’t Skype them,” says Treves, “but we do get regular updates. But we’re not worried: they’re staying with extended family.”

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