Monday, September 14, 2009

Death in Dulwich

I went to the Dulwich Picture Gallery yesterday, not expecting too much as I'm not usually mad about old masters' paintings, but I was pleasantly surprised.

They've got The Judde Memorial (above), which I've seen before in books about the art of death, so it was really good to see the original. It's a 16th century memento mori painting, allowing the viewer to reflect on one's mortality through the use of a variety of typical symbols of death in use by artists at that time. The video by the director of the gallery on their website is a good overview of what's in the painting.

There is a small mausoleum built into the gallery, to house the remains of three of the founders. It was apparently bombed during the last world war and rebuilt as accurately as possible, but some of the features are slightly curious. The hefty, solid-looking pillars look like dark stone, but are made of wood, which you can tell if you tap them. The stained glass seemed a bit odd, as it was a couple of panels of small bright orange glass rectangles. I thought it looked a bit '60's and slightly incongruous alongside the 'stone' pillars, eternal serpents and the casket-shaped receptacles with human remains inside. I'll have to find out more about it.

I was impressed by the labels for the Best of British exhibits. I think it's the first time I've actually found labels memorable - I usually look at the work, read the label, look again at the work and move on. These labels included short quotes or anecdotes about the people in the portraits from writers who were around at the same time, such as Samuel Pepys (diarist) and Fanny Burney (novelist). It seemed to make the portraits come to life more for me by using snippets about someone being thought a blockhead for not getting his hair cut, or being embarrassingly vulgar in polite company, or knowing that the artist had been kind in his portrayal by not painting an old woman toothless, as she was in reality by then, and including unreal curly youthful hair. It gave a sense of the person in the portrait, knowing what others thought of them at that time, whether it was flattering or not. These quotes of text enhanced the portraits by not being just little strings of dry facts about the painting or the artist which for a non- afficionado can be rather dull sometimes.

Apologies to the label writer for not remembering better examples more accurately. I didn't realise I'd still be thinking about labels the next day, but it was an unexpectedly interesting visit, albeit short because of my dad's new knees being tired. I can't think why I've never been there before.

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