Trafalgar Square is lovely in the rain. It’s grey and shiny; timeless and romantic. The red buses, the turquoise ponds, Landseer’s immovable leonine protectors - reassuringly familiar yet curiously unexpected.
I’m standing in front of the National Gallery, my collar turned up against the December drizzle, looking out over the puddled paving slabs, hearing the ballyhoo of the fountains and listening to my companion recounting tales of the heroism from behind a desk of Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park. Apparently he would never have donned such a glamorous flying outfit, but what more fitting site for poetics than our beloved Trafalgar Square.
Inside the home of the national collection of Western art from the 13th to the 19th centuries, the temporary exhibitions we saw are less engaged with the fanciful and idealising aspects of storytelling and more with drawing out the real, whatever that might mean to you or me, or to the artists or curators for that matter.
It has long seemed to me that the tendency of our ever expanding bourgeoisie to decry contemporary art for its perceived dependence on shock tactics, as if such a phenomenon were local to the contemporary alone, could perhaps suggest a want of art historical reference points. If my theory, which is probably about as peculiar to me as shock tactics are to the YBAs, were in need of evidence, it could not be more eloquently presented than by consecutive viewings of The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Paintings & Sculpture 1600 - 1700 and Ed and Nancy Kienholz’s 1980s installation The Hoerengracht, (‘Whore’s Canal’) both currently showing at the National Gallery.
Page one of the bumph describes 17th century Spanish religious art as “stark, austere and often gory, with the intention of shocking the senses and stirring the soul.” That sentence could be transposed word for word to describe the work of so many of today’s artists. Up to a point, it could also describe The Hoerengracht.
The Sacred Made Real is powerfully curated to maximize the emotive potential of the work it shows. Descending the staircase I’m already feeling on the back foot from the psychological impact of plunging downwards into the windowless basement of the Sainsbury wing on a dank rainy afternoon. Once there you’re greeted with nearly black walls and lighting so exaggeratedly spot-lit that in one room I could only just identify the figure hidden in the corner as the gallery’s security presence.
Whether you are in anyway religiously inclined or not, this show is gripping from the moment you enter to the moment you leave. There is a timeless universality that has to be experienced to be understood. Something of the divine is certainly present, perhaps because of, or perhaps despite, the literal subject matter and realistic rendering.
Surprisingly, the pieces that catapulted me most unexpectedly back to territory more familiar – contemporary art - were the sculptural images of Christ.
Occasionally these images of Christ’s suffering hint at latent homo-eroticism, or as my companion chose to put it - ironically a padre himself albeit not of a Christian disposition: “bit porno aren’t they?”
In one or two instances they do more than hint. No coincidence perhaps that Brian Sewell chose an image of Fernandez’s Ecce Homo to accompany his review of the exhibition, describing it as Michelangelesque, by which he means presumably, camp as Christmas. Neither does it come as a great surprise to discover that when the fabric loincloth was removed for restoration purposes in 1989, the genitalia were revealed fully carved beneath. Fernandez had conceived his figure totally naked.
More harrowing is the same artist’s Dead Christ, showing his tragically battered and broken body lying alone on a white sheet. Reminiscent of the notorious Jake and Dinos Chapman sculptural works after Goya’s etchings, this painted wood figure is affectingly gruesome, incorporating bone for the teeth, horn for the finger and toe nails, and glass for the eye balls, as well as the bark of a cork tree painted red to simulate the effect of still warm, coagulating blood.
This scene is usually depicted showing the lamenting figures of the Virgin, Saint John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene. By omitting them, Fernandez invites us to become the mourners, an invitation almost impossible to refuse as our subconscious is powerfully engaged, whether we like it or not, by such a dynamic assault on our ancient archetypal system.
Next door in the Sunley Room a not entirely dissimilar assault is presented to our senses by The Hoerengracht, a life-size sculptural installation showing a part of Amsterdam’s red light district in the 1980s by Ed and Nancy Kienholz. Once again we’re introduced to life like mannequins, now modelled on the real dimensions of the Kienholz’s friends. This time, rather than saints and virgins, we’re being asked to engage with the suffering of prostitutes and pimps. These tragic semi-clad figures sit around in grotty twentieth century Netherlandish windows waiting to appeal to the lowest form of life.
The symbolism is a bit heavy handed. Each face is mounted behind a box frame. Clear gunge seeps down the windows and walls. Otherwise the scene is largely realistic. It isn’t real though of course, it’s art, and oddly enough, taken in that light, I’m not sure it does quite enough. How moving would The Hoerengracht have been seen on its own, rather than in the wake of Sacred?
The physical context also heightens its impact and the National Gallery are keen to highlight, or possibly run the risk of overstating, the polemic nature of the work. Is anyone under 70 really going to be that shocked by the appearance, even in the National Gallery, of explicit reference to the world’s oldest profession?
The only thing that is surprising perhaps is the National Gallery’s prostitution of itself to the demi-God of contemporary art, its pandering to the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for the now. Slightly confusing also, is the mixed message in the form of “crumbs, look how shocking and contentious we’re being” whilst at the same time implying, via the hanging in the ante-chamber to the installation a handful of Dutch master paintings of seventeenth century prostitutes, that prostitution in art has been around almost as long as the profession itself. The curation starts to look a little contrived and attention seeking, and let’s face it, we’ve got Charles Saatchi for that, we don’t need the National Gallery at it too.
Seeing the two shows consecutively they began to merge in my consciousness. After a while I found it difficult to remember where one began and the other ended. Is the spiritual distance between the disparate characters really so great? Or are these exhibitions each presenting us with the martyrs of their own time?