Train Spotting on National Gallery Grand Tour

I had just emerged from swanky dim sum in the subterranean aquarium of Yauatcha with my friend Liza when I was startled to find that we we in front of a large-scale reproduction of Holbein’s The Ambassadors. The anamorphic skull at the base of the painting confronted passers by– a distorted momento mori at their feet.

When I was studying art in school, I had a bit of a crush on this painting. It made me feel warm and fuzzy, and not just because the men in it were dashing, but their range of possessions fascinated me, and the skull, which my mind could see by turning the painting widdershins inside itself– it was magical. Seeing it on Berwick before me, I was wooed all over again.

Rubens on Ganton

Next, we stumbled upon Samon and Delilah on Ganton street– Ruben’s dimpled and generous flesh at eye level– and I knew something was up. I was in Soho– a place full of ad agencies, fashionable clothing stores and porno dens. Samson saited with sex on Delilah’s generous lap– this was really out of place here in the bastion of mechanized sex and silicone, air brushing and size zero dresses.

After returning home and doing some Googling I realized this wasn’t just a fluke, it was an actual show. The National Gallery has hung replicas of several paintings from their collection throughout the streets of Soho and Covent Garden, with surreal and fantastic results. I made a list of all the paintings I wanted to see, drew myself a map and headed back into Soho.

Some, unmapped, thrust themselves upon me. Others came with an Easter-egg hunt satisfaction– their gold frames an eye-catching give away. Some, like the Rousseau that I most wanted to find, eluded me.

Madame Pompadour at her Tambour Frame, Drouais.

She would die a month before this painting was completed. Blamed for the Seven Years War and called the “Godmother of Rococo,” here she sits beside a queue of taxis, outside the Picadilly station, working at her needlepoint with her little black dog.

Caravaggio’s Salome Receiving the Head of John the Baptist.

Someone curating this has a sense of humor. Painted while Caravaggio was on the run for killing a man– he used prostitutes and criminals as models, so in many ways this painting is at home in Walker’s Court, a narrow alley of sex shops. I would have liked to see Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes here, but all the same, the choice of Salome is inspired. Much has been written about beheadings in art history as metaphors for castration, but I will leave that up to the Freudians.

Despite generic chain store take over and general sleaziness of much of London streets, many corners remain elegant, and this show seems to prove this. As I was walking I saw many perfect naked spaces that wanted an image.

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, Jospeh Wright of Derby.

I found this one by surprise, meandering off Wardour. Wright uses chiaroscuro, usually a technique used by artists like Caravaggio to relay a spiritual dichotomy of dark and light. Here the dichotomy is presumably in the service of science– enlightenment or ignorance. Only the picture’s moral ambiguity saves it from being pedantic.

The cruelty of the spectacle was heightened for me– on the sidewalk before the reproduction lay a disemboweled bird, and a few feet away a nutter followed what looked to be its mate, speaking to it as if it were an acquaintance, and periodically reaching out for it. Why the bird didn’t fly away is troubling to contemplate. Of all the reproductions, this was the only one that has suffered a vandal– somone had keyed the surface beneath the gentleman on the far left. I wondered if it was the same man that was tormenting the birds there, performing his own cruel experiment beneath the candle lit scene.

The show, sponsored by Hewlett Packard, is supposedly graffiti proof. The blogosphere has called it a “challenge to Banksy” and “two fingers up to Banksy.” But in many ways, the National Gallery has learned a trick or two from Banksy. Musuems in London are free, so this lesson is not so much about accessibility but recontextualization. Does the art elevate the street? Or, more happily, does the street change the art, humanizing it so that the paintings become mirrors for myriad Londoners. Ironically, the public display makes the work more intimate, private.

Grotesque Old Woman, attributed to Quentin Massys, Foubert’s Place.

I saved the Grotesque Old Woman, one of my favourite paintings in the National Gallery, for last. Sure, the intention is mysogynist, but she is such a fabulous creature– more memorable than the hundreds of portraits of beauties hung about her in the museum. But here she is alone on a brick wall, above some plumbing, holding her own. I stood there saying my silent hello, as a old man on a ciggie break sitting on the bench beneath the painting became increasingly annoyed at my presence. From what I could tell he had no idea what was behind him– a typical, incurious Londoner– sitting in front of what could be a suitable beau for him! He soon had enough of my hovering and wheeled his rolling suitcase away, cursing under his breath.

The treasure hunt aspect of the Grand Tour made me confront my shifting topography of Soho, the place I frequent most in London. I’ve gotten lost in the most familiar of streets there. Soho is infinite and mazelike, a meeting place of shifting landmarks and furtive delights. It seems fitting to me that the National Gallery has secreted away these surprises here.

A map of the paintings as I found them.

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4 thoughts on “Train Spotting on National Gallery Grand Tour

  1. Thanks for the photos. I think this is awesome, but I don’t think Banksy has anything to do with it. It’s a great way to get some serious art outside the gallery. With London museums being free, do a lot of people who might otherwise not go to museums go to museums?

    You could never do this in LA, no one walks anywhere here! Maybe you could do it with billboards, but it would be too much of an ad.

  2. Yes– I was a bit annoyed at the whole idea of the canvases being graffiti proof, and that that had something to do with Banksy– I don’t even remember where I read that now.

    The Tate is extemely popular with Londoners as far as I can tell. It is always crowded with people who don’t seem to be tourists. But the National Gallery is never very crowded– save herds of school children and their teachers. Ultimately the Grand Tour is trying to seduce people into the Gallery– the excellent curators’ notes next to each painting on the street reminds people that they can see paintings for free everyday in the National Gallery.

    I do like how intimate London is because you are always surrounded by people, often right up against them on trains and buses, and there’s no windshield separating you– though people build up their own shields and are quite guarded. I think these paintings are asking people to drop their guard and stop, if only momentarily, to engage in the unprotected reverie that art invites. It’s cool to see people pause and wonder at the prints.

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