Grand National

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 52, Autumn 2017

Page 30

The life of Gabriele Finaldi, the Director of the National Gallery, changed when he saw a Rembrandt. He tells Lucinda Bredin what happened next...

The day that I saw Gabriele Finaldi, the Director of the National Gallery, had not got off to an easy start. The terrorist attack on London Bridge had occurred three days before and the gallery was on all-systems red alert. Security arches had been put in place, so to enter was a bit like going through departures at Gatwick.

There's an element of irony here, because one of the aims of Finaldi since he succeeded Nicholas Penny as Director in 2015 has been to encourage the world to walk through the doors, perhaps on a whim after having attended a happening or a protest in adjoining Trafalgar Square. As he says about the current security situation, "It's depressing, because we've always been very proud of the fact that you can just sweep in from the streets."

We are sitting at a vast mahogany table in Finaldi's expansive office, and it feels a world away from the anarchy of mime artists and tourists at the fountains in Trafalgar Square. We are here to talk about the age-old problem of why studying history of art is viewed as elitist. In 2016, a mere 800 pupils took the subject at A-level, almost all of whom attended a private school. The examination board, AQA, then announced that it was axeing the subject – although subjects such as dance and media studies were retained. There was, not surprisingly, an outcry. In fact, such a fuss that another exam board, Edexcel, has now stepped up to the plate to fill the gap by creating its own qualification.

But it is baffling that, in a society in which images are paramount, schools remain so resistant to teaching history of art as a subject – especially when it encompasses history, literature, economics, science and, in dealing with the invention of perspective, mathematics as well. As Finaldi also points out, "There's a code in the understanding of images, which is just as important as the code for reading or writing, or understanding the code for mathematics. It's very much part of our daily experience – indeed, the society we live in is increasingly visual. People tell me that it's not easy to see how studying the Renaissance is going to make you a more productive citizen, but you could say the same applies to history. Both subjects are part of that same understanding of where we come from, of what has been important to our society in the past, and gives us interpretative keys for understanding where we are now."

Finaldi is not speaking as someone who was raised in a rarified world with ancestral portraits on the wall. Born in 1965, he grew up in an Italian family in Catford, south London, at a time when the area was not the dernier cri. He went first to a comprehensive school, had a couple of years being educated in Naples – the home city of his father – before transferring to intellectually rigorous Dulwich College for sixth form. Before he arrived at Dulwich, he didn't even know history of art was a subject: "I only chose it because I loved the idea of being taught in a museum." His first lesson didn't disappoint: it was in Dulwich Picture Gallery, and given by the late and great Giles Waterfield (who was the Director) who stood in front of the gallery's masterpiece, Rembrandt's Girl at a Window. Finaldi remembers finding it "absolutely thrilling. That sense of standing in front of the pictures and talking about them is one of the things I most enjoy in life. In fact, let's go to look at some pictures...".

As we move at a cracking pace into the galleries, Finaldi warms to his theme about giving visitors "the opportunity to flow through the building", allowing for different pathways through the gallery – rather than finding yourself at a dead end or channelled along a well-worn route to see the same old favourites. To this end, a new gallery – the first at the NG in 26 years – has been created out of a store room and it means that visitors can now walk through the building from Trafalgar Square to Orange Street. But providing fluid navigation is only part of it. The point of the new gallery is to be a place where works by titans of the history of art – in this case, Rubens and Rembrandt – can be displayed opposite each other, rather than being confined to their national schools.

The National Gallery also has to deal with crowds – which is a nice problem to have, as there's nothing like being a popular attraction. In 2010, attendance figures hovered around 4m; since then, visitor numbers have soared to 6m a year, an average of 50,000 visitors a day – and Finaldi wants to make sure that they see more than The Arnolfini Portrait, The Rokeby Venus and The Hay Wain.

We walk upstairs to look at one of the NG's treasures – Michaelangelo's The Entombment – a painting that allows Finaldi to return to his argument about how pictures can act as jumping-off points for virtually every subject in the National Curriculum. "I mean – look...", he says, feasting his eyes on the canvas, "one could really approach this painting in so many different ways." The work, which shows Christ's body being carried to his tomb by a series of figures, came from a collection in Rome. It is thought to have been an altarpiece for Sant'Agostino – a commission that Michelangelo failed to deliver. "Which explains why it's unfinished," says Finaldi. "But this state means that the viewer is very conscious of its materiality, and the technical challenge involved in the composition. Then there's the question of the subject matter and how it connects to a biblical text. There's the history of faith to be examined. There are the sociological questions about how artists travel and what they learn in different places... which leads onto how Classical and Christian elements are combined, as well as how this interacts with the notion of the body, and what is considered beautiful at different times over the course of history. I think there's a lot of psychology in this painting, in terms of human relationships, and emotions, the sense of grief... of love and loss. It's all there. Just in the very short time we've spent talking about it, we've already covered four or five major topics."

I ask if the background setting is unfinished or deliberately ambiguous. Finaldi pauses for a moment. "I don't think Michelangelo was that interested in landscape, but this painting has a deliberate barrenness, which psychologically coincides with the theme of the picture. Christ's body is physically being carried off for burial, and you have a sense of the narrative running through the picture. The two female figures – one largely painted and one unpainted – are there to encourage contemplation of the subject matter, so it's one of those pictures that has, placed within it, its own instructions about how you should look at it and how you should think about it."

After spending an hour with Gabriele Finaldi, I was reminded that even if schools abrogate their responsibility for teaching pupils how to decode a painting, more and more people – over 34 per cent of the population – visit museums every year to work it out for themselves.

That's 1 in 3 people across the UK. As Finaldi says, "Everyone can come here to learn, to enjoy, to transform their experience of seeing works of art into whatever it is they want to do. They can make a painting themselves or compose a piece of writing, or simply have a conversation... I mean, it's exciting."

Lucinda Bredin is Editor of Bonhams Magazine.

The exhibition Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites is at the National Gallery in London from 2 October 2017-2 April 2018.

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