Nothing can stop art. That’s a lie. A dictatorship can stop art. They do it all the time. Apart from that though, nothing can stop art. Certainly not a mere pandemic.
Since we stopped being allowed outside last March, many of us have still been hooking up with our fave London institutions via the world wide web. We’re culture junkies getting our fix via Zoom panels, online workshops, virtual exhibitions and typing ‘paintings’ into Google.
One institution that has done many a digital initiative during the last 12 months is the National Gallery. It’s allowed visitors to browse its collection virtually. And, it has been keeping tabs on which works have been getting the highest number of views. (And what better metric for judging a painting's artistic merit than the medium known as 'clicks'?)
Anyway: five paintings came out on top in the National Gallery’s battle for clicks. The leaderboard features works by da Vinci and van Gogh. But what does each of their successes tell us about how we’ve all been feeling in lockdown? Why were we drawn to those works in particular? Well, we’re about to do a THOROUGH investigation (I’m going to look at the pictures and speculate wildly) to find out.
5. The Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci
The NG describes this as ‘a complex and mysterious painting which has intrigued people for centuries’. It’s one of Leonardo’s only finished works and it was made ‘using techniques that transformed Italian painting’. Pretty certain that no-one has been clicking on it for that reason: it’s because it’s a perfect depiction of being stuck in gloomy lockdown with normality just out of reach. That’s why the lass in the painting’s so pale, and also a virgin. She’s not been out for months.
What does it tell us about lockdown? Either we’re all desperately searching for a glimpse of sunny hope in the distance or many of us have also spent our lockdown stuck in a cave with a couple of naked cherubs and so found that bit #relatable. Both theories seem legit.
4. The Fighting Temeraire by Joseph Mallord William Turner
No offence to Turner, I’m sure he’s a great guy – and I realise this painting is ‘important’ – but this is basically the 19th century version of an Instagram sunset photo. A lovely but ultimately boring hit of pastel shades and sea view. And, yes, you’re right: I haven’t read any of the information about this painting and I NEVER WILL.
What does it tell us about lockdown? We’d all give anything to be back in Split, looking out over the dock and sipping frozen margs with the girlies.
3. Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh
You could interpret this painting’s popularity right now as a result of us all suddenly appreciating the little things. You know, like having a bright bunch of flowers on our kitchen table in a nice vase. Or maybe it's a sign that we’re finding comfort in the known: nostalgic TV, music from our teenage years, art we know and love. But realistically it’s just ranking in the Top Three because loads of kids are Googling it for their art homework.
What does it tell us about lockdown? That children are good at using the internet.
2. The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger
One thing is clear from The Ambassadors' popularity. And that’s that we’ve all been looking for ways to justify our online shopping habits. Just one small look at this work by Hans Holbein (the Younger) will make you feel better about the £50 Toast hot water bottle cover you bought the other day. These lads have clearly gone a bit wild on Ye Olde Amazon, bought more globes and lutes than anyone would ever need, and now they’re waiting for Ye Olde eBay to be invented so they can shill them to someone else.
What does it tell us about lockdown? Something, something... secret skull representing the ever-present feeling of darkness in the air at the moment... something.
1. The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck
Woman on the right is saying: ‘Please can I have a hug?’ Man on the left is saying: ‘No. Stay two metres away. You are a bad person for not being Covid compliant. I, on the other hand, have a fabulous hat.’
What does it tell us about lockdown? Isn't it obvious? It's telling us that you’re more likely to stick to social distancing rules if you’re wearing big headgear.