Saturday, 1 October 2011

The Couch Potato Takes to the Streets

In the fascinating DVD "The National Gallery's Grand Tour", art historian Tim Marlow takes us on a walk round the streets of London's Soho, Covent Garden and Chinatown. In the streets and alleyways, in the most unexpected and unusual places, we discover 44 of the National Gallery's most famous works of art.

Complete with frames and wall texts, these superb full-size reproductions delight passers-by, who stop to look, to whip out their 'phones for a picture and sometimes to call the number on the wall text for the audio-info.

In this DVD, we take a fresh look at the paintings in their temporary new hanging spaces. It's interesting to see them in a completely new context and Mr Marlow is an engaging and very knowledgable guide. The West End has become a giant art gallery: Vincent's Sunflowers is on a sidewalk café wall, Caravaggio's Salomé hangs next to the door of a sex shop. Stubbs' Whistlejacket prances on the wide expanse of a warehouse wall. Seurat's Bathers at Asniéres are sunning themselves beside the staff entrance to Hamley's and Holbein's Ambassadors solemnly regard the passers-by in Berwick Street, Soho. I wonder what they make of it all!

Amazingly, only four of the pictures disappeared overnight during the twelve weeks of the exhibition, including Belshazzar's Feast by Rembrandt. The theft of that huge work was captured on the ubiquitous CCTV cameras and is reproduced frame by frame in the book "Tiger Seen on Shaftesbury Avenue".

This book is a kind of catalogue of this unusual exercise: it is a National Gallery publication that documents the exhibition and viewers' effusive reactions to it. It features images of the paintings taken by passers-by, including Rousseau's "Surprised "on Shaftesbury Avenue. The book quotes insightful and witty comments from various members of the public and recounts amusing anecdotes regarding people's reactions.

The National Gallery called this exhibition The Grand Tour. It celebrates the richness and diversity of the Gallery's permanent collection and its aim was to encourage people to visit the genuine works. In this it was successful, attracting not only tourists but many Londoners who had been unaware of the visual treasures that are available, free of charge, in their marvellous city.

Here in Marvellous Melbourne our very own NGV also has a wonderful collection of paintings and we are extremely lucky that the permanent collection is on view free of charge. Unlike many international art museums, where you have to hand over an arm and a leg before they let you clap eyes on so much as a small watercolour by a Sunday painter.

The NGV's annual blockbuster exhibitions of loaned masterpieces are great, but wouldn't it be a treat if our own masterpieces could go walkabout in our city? How exciting to come across Cleopatra in an alleyway or meet Dame Nellie Melba in Collins Street!

I borrowed the DVD from the Eastern Region Library system (Ringwood, Knox et al) and the book is available at the Whitehorse-Manningham Libraries.

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