I'm a keen exhibition attendee, and there have been a few in recent months that have captured my imagination. The fact I'm still thinking about two of them months after I saw them is testament to their power (and also my excuse if things seem a little hazy!)
On one particularly busy Saturday last year I went to both the 'Elizabeth and Her People' exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery and then dashed next door to the National Gallery for the 'Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900' exhibition. It is hard to imagine two exhibitions that are quite so opposite in theme, and it was certainly fascinating to contemplate the latter exhibit in parallel with the former.
The Elizabeth I exhibition was very intimate, curling back on itself and with 'peep holes' allowing reflection back and forth between the rooms. The Queen's image was closely guarded and very few of her portraitists actually saw her - most copied images that had been 'approved'. This led to a highly romantic view of the queen, particularly in later years. It wasn't just the queen that was a primary focus - as the title suggests, there was a close look at her people - both those close to the crown and the more general depictions of Elizabethan life. There was an amazing rapier, at least a meter long. Beautiful in its craftsmanship, but undoubtedly very difficult to wield.
Sometimes I find myself disappointed with an exhibition - there sometimes seems to be a lack of something ..... often I can't put my finger on it, but with this I knew exactly. Given the fact that it was in the NPG, I could not fathom the reason why Elizabeth I's coronation portrait was not part of the exhibition. It's just upstairs, and would have been a stunning addition to a collection that was so focussed on the importance of image and its dissemination to the masses. Perhaps it couldn't be moved, but the omission glared and I kept wishing for its inclusion.
The Vienna exhibition, in contrast, totally blew me away. I had no expectations (which I suppose helped) and I wandered around drinking in the variety and scope this exhibition had to offer.
Vienna was in the grip of a cultural war around 1900 - the old and the new fighting each other for supremacy. It was a lush exhibition. The old style of portrait executed so well by Ferdinand Georg Waldmuller and then Klimt - pushing on to the scene with informality and brilliant colour. Both those artists deserve a closer look as well as Auchentaller, who produced a painting in 1912 of a young woman so sharp that it could be a photograph. It's hard to convey precisely what about this exhibition thrilled so much, but a great part of it was the thrill of the new and undiscovered.
More recently, I went to the 'Turner and the Sea' exhibition at the National Maritime Museum. Turner is prolific, and the variety of works that were gathered together were staggering. The battle of Trafalgar being one of his largest canvases, and an event that was an important part of the national psyche. Britain, being the sea fairing nation it was (and is) naturally produced artists who found inspiration in the watery depths. Other artists produced some beautiful works, but when Turner was pushed by his contemporaries he then went the beyond the boundaries and produced something new. It's a fantastic exhibition. I just wish I'd bought the catalogue!
I'm always on the quest to see art I'm not familiar with or great collections that important families have acquired over the decades. Tomorrow I'm off to Hughendon - home of the great Benjamin Disraeli. I'm sure there's going to be some wonderful treasures in store!