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Faces and spaces: an ambitious but unsatisfactory survey of renaissance portraits reveals glaring problems with the exhibition galleries at both the Prado and the National Gallery, London.


Like films, exhibitions based on books don't always work. Possibly the worst show at the National Gallery, London, in recent memory was 'Fabric of Vision: Dress and Drapery in Painting' in 2002. Great works of art were flown in from around the world to illustrate a scholarly thesis, an improper use of such precious objects. Although 'Renaissance Faces' has been curated by a group of well-respected scholars whose contributions to the catalogue are exemplary, it too seems a somewhat arbitrary selection of pictures brought together to illustrate a thesis.

Thankfully, home collections were the mainstay of this show both in Madrid and London. At Habsburg works were rather randomly selected from the adjacent rooms to amplify each thematic section. Some of these were ugly or pointless, while the Prado's famous Durer self-portrait was practically hidden in isolation behind a projecting wall panel. A few meagre works initiated the illustration of the North-South theme, followed by a stronger section replete with medals and drawings demonstrating the influence of the classical tradition. The most glaring absence from the 16th-century section was any work by Sebastiano del Piombo, an absurdity for an exhibition claiming to offer a 'comprehensive survey' as he was one of the most influential portrait painters.

In Madrid works were hung spaciously and set off against a handsome, uniform dark green background, whereas in London each room is a different colour. Some work better than others and mercifully none plumbs the abyss achieved with the horrible hue used for 'Pompeo Batoni' earlier this year. At times paintings jostle together in London, although small pieces have been carefully chosen for the awkwardly shaped first room, avoiding the visual affront visited on Batoni's magnificent Triumph of Venice, recently jammed onto the diagonal wall here.


Some parts of the hang in London work well, as in Room Three, where Quinten Massys's Peter Gillis (Fig. 2) and Erasmus portrait medal (Fig. 3) are brought together. But in the same room one of Raphael's most unhappy works--Andrea Navagero and Agostino Beazzano from the Galleria Doria Pamphilj in Rome--jars with the lovely Pontormo double portrait of 1541 from Venice. Room Four has a series of splendid paintings, including Piero di Cosimo's double portrait of Francesco and Giuliano da Sangallo (Fig. 1), but all too often it seems to have been forgotten that the point of borrowing works should be to see them in a new and illuminating light. The last room in particular is a sigmal lesson in how not to hang great paintings: two potential stars of the show, Raphael's great Julius II and Titian's sublime Paul III are placed so close on a single wall together with other works that they manage to cancel each other out.

Given the well-known deficiencies of the exhibition space in London, it is particularly disappointing that the Prado's brief to Rafael Moneo for his extension there appears to replicate the National Gallery arrangement. Although as architecture, Moneo's work here is to be applauded (see APOLLO, January 2008), it is difficult to digest the deliberate decision to locate the temporary exhibition spaces in the lowest level. Admittedly there is light at the end of Moneo's tunnel, or exhibition circuit, but apart from the last of these tall rooms with moveable walls, none of the spaces in the configuration for this exhibition enjoyed natural light. Thus wonderful loaned works were seen less well here than in their home context, quite unlike the spectacular Tintoretto show held last year in the Prado's main hall, where many loans were seen to their greatest effect for the first time.

Might the Prado not have devised a different brief, asking Moneo to build new additional galleries for the permanent collection and dedicating the main hall to exhibitions? For 'Tintoretto' the doors onto adjacent rooms were kept open to encourage visitors to make visual connections between works in the show and the permanent collection. This could also be the basis of a solution to the wish expressed by Nicholas Penny, the new director of the National Gallery, in a recent interview in the Economist, to encourage greater acquaintance with its permanent collections. Given that most visitors are drawn into the building by exhibitions, it seems counter-productive that these are held as far away as possible from its holdings. Instead, why not have the courage to renovate the spaces around the Central Hall (decommissioning the under-used shop between Rooms Two and 12 and incorporating the Sunley Room spaces) so as to offer a sequence of five top-lit galleries at the very heart of the building? With warders

on each entrance the exhibition spaces could open onto the permanent collections so that visitors might go out into them and also return. What better way to encourage a wider acquaintance with the national collections? A project such as 'Renaissance Faces', in which so many of the best works are from the permanent collection, could establish a model for an exhibition that needn't rely on flying in precious paintings from overseas but which would build on in-house strengths and display them in a more meaningful way.



"El retrato del Renacimiento', Museo del Prado, Madrid, 3 June 7 September. 'Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titiana National Gallery, London, 15 October-18 January 2009 (+44 [o]20 7 747 2885). English catalogue by Lorne Campbell, et al. (eds), ISBN 9781857094077 (cloth), 40 [pounds sterling] (National Gallery/Yale University Press).

Andrew Hopkins is a research professor at the Universita degli Studi dell'Aquila.
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Title Annotation:EXHIBITIONS
Author:Hopkins, Andrew
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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