Always on the ball – often much more effectively so than other sister institutions here in London, the National Gallery has just announced a partnership with Nikon. ‘The next 12 months,’ so the press release tells one, ‘will see us work with Nikon on a broad schedule of online content all aimed at letting people take inspiration from one of the greatest art collections in the world, and also to explore the synergies between photography and fine art.’
In trying to combat the effects of the Covid virus, which has closed the gallery to visitors for at least the next month, the NG has taken inspiration from the past – from the grim years of World War II, when the collection was evacuated to safe storage. From 1942 onwards, a single painting was put on display in war-time London every month. Now the monthly display is going to be digital. The choice for the first month, available now on the gallery website, is a dinky little still life by the Netherlandish painter Jan van Kessel the Elder (1626-1678). Signed and dated 1654, that is painted when the artist was still in his twenties, it features a twig of common hawthorn berries and one of forget-me-not, surrounded by butterflies and other insects. All the insects seem remarkably alive, rather than being specimens pinned to a board.
The accompanying text is a reminder of a variety of things. For example, of the fact that the still life artists of Van Kessel’s generation were influenced by the invention of the microscope, which enabled them to examine aspects of the natural world in much more detail than had been possible previously. While this promoted a more rational, scientific examination of the wonders of nature, it was not separated from other concerns.
As the NG website reminds one: ‘Van Kessel’s educated clientele would have also appreciated the symbolism of his arrangements. They would, for example, have known that forget-me-nots are a reminder of mortality, and a symbol of remembrance, while the metamorphosis of the earthly caterpillar into an ephemeral butterfly, represents the triumph of the soul through resurrection.’
The messages now being delivered to us by supposedly ‘major’ contemporary artists are much less complex than these. They are also being delivered in hectoring, know-it-all tones. Which, ironically, leaves them much more open to being misunderstood.
To choose a relatively neutral example – neutral because it is already drifting into the past – think of the recent row concerning the late Philip Guston’s use of Ku Klux Klan imagery. Those tasked with organising an ambitious touring show of Guston’s work suddenly became terrified by the idea that the audience they wanted to address – ‘young people’ – would immediately assume that the use of Ku Klux Klan images in Guston’s later, figurative paintings were supportive of the Klan, not satirical. And, oh, in addition to that, Guston was a white man, and therefore had no business to be butting in.
The audience that Van Kessel was addressing was much smaller than the one that contemporary art (at least in the dreams of its promoters) currently addresses. It was also, both in terms of its own time and also in those of ours, better informed, more interested in the different kinds of information that visual art can convey. Whether or not telling us this formed part of the NG’s intention, it is something that emerges very clearly from their new project.