A Rare Disappointment at the National Gallery


I’m rarely disappointed by exhibitions at the National Gallery. Indeed, the first exhibition which began my love of art was in that very place. Since 2005 and Caravaggio: The Final Years my addiction has been regularly topped up by the fantastic displays it has to offer. Both Leonardo: Painter at the Court of Milan and Rembrandt: The Late Works come so easily to mind. Each conjures a rich tapestry of images and I still treasure the catalogues to this day.

The permanent collection is equally a treat. For me the space takes on a quality somewhat akin to a sacred space. In today’s post religious Britain we no longer throng to Mass at the weekends or even on High days and Holy days. But, as anyone who regularly pops in as I do knows, at the weekends or recently over Easter and the like, it positively throbs with visitors eager to venerate it’s truly world class collection.

So my weekend trip to see Delacroix was a jolt to the system. I’m not qualified enough to talk about his place in the cannon of art historical importance. But having paid my admission like every other grumpy Yorkshireman I feel more than entitled to give space to my opinion.

The exhibition just doesn’t work. It’s not altogether devoid of good canvasses: there are at least a couple of excellent Van Gogh’s and there is even a decent self-portrait by Delacroix himself. Yet, as you move through the rooms it lacks anything by way of glam or a showstopper. I wasn’t for a moment expecting Liberty Leading the People. I didn’t for one moment think that the French Republic would let it leave the Louvre. Given he’s famed for his larger dramatic canvasses we don’t see those. Just the smaller ones of his North African trips. Does the viewer feel that this exhibition Delacroix: And the Rise of the Modern gives us a sense of the Delacroix we see in the Louvre? I didn’t.

Perhaps this is where I stop being a connoisseur and simply revert to being a consumer. But if so I acknowledge it gladly. Whatever it is that this exhibition is lacking it’s not simply a well known work – because often the focal point in a good exhibition is not that. It’s merely something that is of such a powerful quality that it kind of etches itself into one. It’s the work which makes you want to buy the postcard afterwards. This exhibition doesn’t do that.

Instead it attempts to show the influence of Delacroix and others on him – not least Rubens’ with the lion hunt. But we don’t get a canvass by Rubens, which is a shame. It would have been better to see Delacroix not just as an influence or transmitter but rather as part of a larger narrative arch. Perhaps then with Rubens we might have had that focal point. The gallery may even have sold a few more postcards.

I’m sure that the National Gallery’s curators wanted to educate us the public. It can’t always be the blockbusters. But it’s possible to do that and still have an enjoyable show. You only have to take the Royal Academy’s Moroni exhibition to see that it is possible to do just that. But sometimes artists and his or her canvasses are less well known simply because they are less good, less well vivid. It doesn’t have to be enjoyable in a purely positive sense but it has to have a power to emote. To make you respond to what you are seeing. If you can’t do that, for not everything we see necessarily is to our tastes, then at least make it interesting. I like Van Gogh, I like Rubens, I like Cezanne – all of these boxes were ticked and yet it still fails to sing. It wasn’t interesting at least to me – others may well have liked it and it wouldn’t do if we all liked the same thing.

I don’t say this often but give this one a miss…

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