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A Walk Through the National Gallery

Me: Are you sure you don’t want to come with me to the National Gallery? There’s a Dürer exhibition I’d love to show you…

Son: I’m sure mum.

So I left my boy to fend for himself and I headed to Trafalgar Square. I tried to remind myself that he was happy with his computer games and YouTube clips. Couldn’t help feeling a little guilty though.

I vowed to take him to the Dürer exhibition soon. My son seemed interested enough.

On the train. Ready for the journey.

It was easy to get there from Southwest London. Walked to the station and hopped on the District Line that took me straight to Embankment. Then it was only a short 5 minute walk to Trafalgar Square.

You couldn’t miss the grand building even if you tried. It dominated Trafalgar Square. The architecture seemed familiar though.

It reminded me of a smaller space, half a world away — the Art Gallery of NSW. The place I loved taking my son to when he was younger.

It was a space full of memories. It was where our young son told us about John Olsen’s Five Bells after a school excursion there. It was where he showed an interest in East Asian art, often asking me to go to the second floor to see the collection.

I associate that place with blue skies and warm summer days, of sharing a hot chocolate with our boy as we rested our tired legs.

The National Gallery was much larger and grand. It was there to impress. And that, it did.

Walking through the hallways, you couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty of it all. The remarkable space as well as the incredible paintings by long gone masters.

It was a thrill to see paintings I’d seen and studied at school up on a wall in real life.

The image below is by da Vinci. It’s from about 1499 – 1500 and depicts Mary and Jesus with Saint Anne and John the Baptist (the child to the right).

Then there was this Michelangelo from the late 1400s. Unfinished, but beautiful nonetheless.

As I wandered along, I felt my heart quicken as I came across a work by my favourite Renaissance artist — El Greco.

He was painting about a hundred years after the previous two masters. But his work was far ahead of his time. His brushstrokes were strong, almost sketchy. His colours vivid with intense contrast. His work was dramatic and passionate. No one painted like him during the 1500s. No one.

Fast forward about three hundred years or so, and you’ll see the familiar brushstrokes and play with paint in the work of Cezanne and expressionist painters like Kirchner.

His real name was Domḗnikos Theotokópoulos. He was born in Crete. He kept signing his name on his paintings. But those around him kept calling him “the Greek”. El Greco.

I remember during lunchtimes, I would head to the school library to pore over El Greco’s work in textbooks. I loved the pain and passion in his paintings. They weren’t meek or mild. They expressed something, perhaps the darkness of this world.

Domḗnikos Theotokópoulos was an outsider most of his life. He left his home when he was 26 years old and went to Venice. Then Rome. Then finally Spain. He was an outsider like me. Often misunderstood. Like me.

But there he was. Painting with the best of them in the 1500s. Single-mindedly doing his own thing and not caving to the tastes of his generation.

His strong use of colour was seen as crude to many during his lifetime. He was derided by the generation that came after him. For hundreds of years his work was seen as contemptible and worthy of scorn.

Then slowly the world changed. And he is discovered again in the 1900s. His work sparks other ideas, pushes people to think and engage with the world differently and to look at it through new eyes.

The painting I saw today was of Christ driving the traders from the temple. It is also one of my favourite passages of scripture.

Christ sees the temple in Jerusalem defiled by greed and profit. And he is furious. He overturns their stalls and kicks the traders out.

If you look closely, the small relief at the top left hand corner shows an angel expelling Adam and Eve from Eden. It shows the fall of mankind. The consequences of sin and how humanity breaks a once perfect world.

On the top right, there is another relief that hints at redemption. It shows the sacrifice of Isaac alluding to the ultimate sacrifice — Christ’s death on the cross.

I love the bold colour of his clothes. The contrast between Christ’s red robes and his blue cloak. The light bounces off the folds, giving it a satin-like sheen. The table in the foreground is turned over and you get a sense of movement and chaos.

But right at the heart of the work is Jesus — heart breaking and furious over how far people have walked away from God to use a sacred and precious relationship with Him for profit.

There were many more famous treasures at the National Gallery. I wandered through as many rooms as I could before I thought I should head back home.

At the exit, I thanked the guard.

“Thank you so much. I had a wonderful time. Everything was so beautiful!” I enthused.

“What was your favourite?” he asked.

“You had a beautiful El Greco!!” I resisted the urge to flap my arms.

“Did you see the Leonardo?” he asked. “It’s brighter than the one in Paris.”

For Jo’s Monday Walks

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December 2021
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