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Review

National Gallery

5 out of 5 stars

First-class art for every class of art lover

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Time Out says

Established in 1824 as a new art collection for the enjoyment and education of all, the National Gallery first consisted of 38 pictures, put on display at a house on Pall Mall while a purpose-built gallery was constructed. There are now over 2,300 works of art, from medieval classics to world-famous pieces by the French Impressionists. The new museum opened in 1838, located in Trafalgar Square because it was deemed to be at the heart of London – easy for rich people to visit from the west by carriage and also convenient for poor people coming by foot from east London.

Free to visit, the National Gallery is still as welcoming to all as it was back then. Anyone can swing by and gaze on Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ for ten minutes on their way to work, or stay all day and admire JMW Turner’s Bequest or Cézanne’s ‘Bathers’.

The gallery has blockbuster exhibitions, music concerts and courses that do carry an entry charge, but most of the collection isn’t ticketed, and there are free talks each day, which you don’t need to book in advance. These take a closer look at a different painting or theme each time.

Details

Address
Trafalgar Square
London
WC2N 5DN
Transport:
Tube: Charing Cross
Price:
Free (permanent collection); admission charge applies for some temporary exhibitions
Opening hours:
Open daily 10am–6pm, Fridays 10am–9pm. Closed Jan 1, Dec 24–26.
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What’s on

Mantegna: The Triumphs of Caesar

4 out of 5 stars

It’s hard to know if Italian Renaissance master Andrea Mantegna was issuing a doom-laden warning or just a doe-eyed love letter to history. Because written into the nine sprawling canvases of his ‘Triumphs of Caesar’ (six of which are on show here while their gallery in Hampton Court Palace is being renovated) is all the glory and power of Ancient Rome, but its eventual collapse too. It starts, like any good procession, with a load of geezers with trumpets, parping to herald the arrival of victorious Caesar. As they blare, a Black soldier in gorgeous, gilded armour looks back, leading you to the next panel where statues of gods are paraded on carts. Then come the spoils of war, with mounds of seized weapons and armour piled high, then come vases and sacrificial animals, riders on elephant-back, men struggling to carry the loot that symbolises their victory. The final panel, Caesar himself bringing up the rear, remains in Hampton Court, so there is no conclusion here, just a steady, unstoppable stream of glory and rejoicing.  The paintings are faded and damaged, and have been so badly lit that you can only see them properly from a distance and at an angle. But still, they remain breathtaking in their sweeping, chaotic beauty.  Partly, this massive work is a celebration of the glories of the classical world and its brilliance, seen from the other side of some very dark ages. But along with its rise, you can’t help but also think of Rome's demise, of what would eventually come a

‘The Last Caravaggio’

5 out of 5 stars

The arrow has only just pierced her heart, but the blood has already drained from Ursula’s fragile body. She is pallid, ashen, aghast at the mortal wound in her chest. All around her mouths are agape in shock, men grasp to hold her up, a hand tries – too late – to stop the arrow. This miserable, chaotic, sombre depiction of feverish violence is the last painting of one of history’s most important artists, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. He painted like he lived. Caravaggio’s short existence was full of the drama of his art. When he wasn’t making a name for himself as the leading artist of his generation he was fighting in the streets, drinking in the bars, and generally being a superstar agent of chaos. In 1606, he killed a man and was sentenced to death. So he fled, and got in more trouble in Malta and Sicily, before heading to Naples where he painted this scene for a Genoese nobleman whose daughter was about to become a nun.  The legend goes that Saint Ursula was a Christian princess whose 11,000 holy virgin followers were murdered by the Huns in Cologne. The Hun prince offered to spare her life in exchange for her hand in marriage. You can see how he took her rejection: it’s him who loosed the arrow in her chest.  A maelstrom of movement and brutality and morbidity. It’s incredible. Caravaggio’s last painting (the main attraction in this tiny free exhibition) isn’t in the best state of repair; big chunks are smudged and foggy, other parts look messily overpainted. Is th

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