How to make the most of ‘slow looking’ in London art galleries – Evening Standard



Tate Modern is on to something.

For its forthcoming exhibition about Pierre Bonnard it is promoting what the curator, Matthew Gale calls “slow looking”. That is to say, it’s encouraging visitors to take time to look at pictures at length, for as much as half an hour, especially those that “reward careful scrutiny”… with details that only reveal themselves gradually. He’s planning “slow looking” events to help people see the pictures properly by discussing the artist’s imagery, structure and techniques. The exercise is, he observes, “a challenge in this day and age”.

Too true. I went to the Chinese gallery at the British Museum this week, to find the institution the equivalent of Piccadilly Circus, about as unpropitious for slow looking as it’s possible to get. If you want to stand and stare at one of the more famous works you’ll have to take your turn next to tourists whose object is to take a picture on their phone and then move rapidly on. It bears out a study done by the Metropolitan Museum in New York a year ago, which found the average time taken by a visitor in front of a work of art is 28 seconds. It does make you wonder whether the object of the exercise is to look at a work, or to say you’ve seen it.

Some museums already encourage slow looking. At Sir John Soane’s Museum, for instance, which is fascinating in all sorts of ways, there aren’t any intrusive labels; visitors are encouraged to put their phones aside and simply to focus on the exhibits. Earlier critics took for granted that looking properly at works of art took time; John Ruskin would write about spending an entire morning in a church looking at its art and architecture. With our notoriously short attention spans, we’re made of less stern stuff.

15 paintings you absolutely must see in London

But standing in front of a painting with your alarm timed for 30 minutes isn’t the way to do it. Kenneth Clark, the celebrated art critic, wrote a book called Looking at Pictures, which discussed how to learn to interrogate a painting. “Looking at pictures requires active participation and, in the early stages, a certain amount of discipline,” he observed. 

He divided the experience into three stages: the first, the general impression of tone and colour — for him, that took about two minutes. Then there is bringing knowledge of the artist to bear on a picture. That engagement keeps the attention fixed on the work. Finally, the picture takes effect, and you may find it changes how you see the world.

Here are some suggestions for works of art in London that repay extended slow looking. Take the time for details to emerge. Read a little about the artist, look at their other works. Seeing a work of art is a matter of moments; looking at it takes time.

1. Physical Energy by GF Watts, Hyde Park, 1902
(Print Collector/Getty Images)

G F Watts, a great sculptor as well as a painter, thought that access to great art would have an ennobling effect on the population. Well, you can’t get better public access than this, the bronze cast of his monumental sculpture, Physical Energy, bang in the middle of Hyde Park. It is, essentially, a man on a horse, with the rider shading his eyes with his hand. It’s colossally elemental; Watts himself described it as “that restless physical impulse to seek the still unachieved in the domain of material things”. It’s an allegory of human and animal vitality and, in its splendid isolation, is both arresting and exhilarating.

2. Girl at a Window, Rembrandt, Dulwich Picture Gallery, 1645

The story was that Rembrandt placed this picture behind an actual window, and it was so realistic that passers-by thought the young woman was real. Turns out this wasn’t true, but it’s impossible not to respond to the direct gaze of this girl who looks straight at the viewer, leaning on a stone ledge. We don’t know who she is, what she is. She could be a figure from the Old Testament, or a servant; there’s a sensuousness about the loose chemise and ruddy complexion. She looks at you; you look at her.

3. A Rake’s Progress, William Hogarth, Sir John Soane’s Museum, 1733

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This is a cheat: a series of pictures, not just the one, but it’s a cracker. Hogarth’s gravestone in Chiswick observes that “his pictured morals change the mind; and through the eye, correct the heart” and this is a moral lesson in eight pictures. It’s the story of a young man who inherits a fortune, fritters it away in loose living, then sinks down and down into moral turpitude until he ends up in the madhouse. A bracing warning, then, against imprudence and self-indulgence, with enough riveting detail to detain you for at least 30 minutes. If you don’t fancy Hogarth, in the same room  there’s a wonderful Canaletto.

4. Devonshire Hunting Tapestries, V&A, 1430-1450

It’s bedlam again on the V&A ground floor now, but on the upper floor, next to the museum’s wonderful under-visited picture gallery, there’s a darkened gallery with this extraordinary series of tapestries that is often near-empty. The original riot of colour in these huge canvases is faded now — some colours predominate as they wouldn’t have done originally — but these tapestries, probably from Arras in France and almost certainly executed by women, are still a fabulous fantasy of hunting, courting, rural life, courtly life and snogging. The subject is hunting — otters, swans, bear, deer — but the packed canvases are a riot of all kinds of activity.

5. The Waterseller of Seville, Velázquez, Apsley House, 1620
(Corbis via Getty Images)

It’s extraordinary to think that this was painted when the artist was only 19 or 20; it was his calling card, to advertise his skills. It is a genre picture, depicting a humble occupation, but it’s really a sublime reflection on youth and age and a study in light that recalls Caravaggio. Look at the textures: the shiny glazed ceramic vessel, the unvarnished terracotta, the wool of the old man’s tunic, the young one’s crumpled linen collar. Look closer; see the fig in the glass, the shadowy figure of a man between the boy and the waterseller. And in this gallery there’s space to sit down and contemplate the pictures.

6. The Swing, Fragonard, Wallace Collection, 1768
(Alamy Stock Photo)

This joyful piece of rococo art shows an older man in the shadows pushing a girl in riotously frothy pink on a swing, with her lover looking at her from below as her slipper flies off and her little dog barks. Look at the statue of Cupid, with his finger to his lips. It’s erotic, of course, but it’s innocent and coquettish and mischievous too. An enchanted world in which we can all take refuge.

7. Stations of the Cross, Eric Gill, Westminster Cathedral, 1913-18

Again, this is a cheat: the stations of the cross give you the Passion of Christ in 14 successive panels, and you walk through them in turn. They are carved in low relief in Hopton Wood limestone, and they are marvels of restrained impassive simplicity. They got a dusty reception from critics when they were first put in the Cathedral — “grotesque and undevotional” was one observation — but this misses the point. The emotion comes from the viewer.

8. Montagne Sainte-Victoire with a Large Pine, Cézanne, Courtauld Gallery, 1887

Cézanne once claimed that nature should be treated in terms of three-dimensional geometric shapes, and this landscape has the blocks of colour that we can see as art on the path to abstraction. It’s a masterly exercise in colour and form; see how the framing branch of pine curves into the outline of the mountain.

It exudes light and heat; an enormously satisfying picture. Tbh, it was a tough call as to whether to go for this Cézanne, or his Card Players in the same gallery. Try both.

15 paintings to see in London

15 show all

1/15 15 paintings to see in London

Hans Holbein the Younger, Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (‘The Ambassadors’), 1533

The National Gallery, London

2/15 15 paintings to see in London

John Singer Sargent 1856-1925 Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose 1885-6 Oil on canvas support: 1740 x 1537mm, painting

Tate Britain/Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1887

3/15 15 paintings to see in London

Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1888

The National Gallery, London

4/15 15 paintings to see in London

Claude Monet, The Water-Lily Pond, 1899

The National Gallery, London

5/15 15 paintings to see in London

Thomas Gainsborough, Mr and Mrs Andrews, about 1750

The National Gallery, London

6/15 15 paintings to see in London

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin with the Infant Saint John the Baptist adoring the Christ Child accompanied by an Angel (‘The Virgin of the Rocks’), about 1491/2-9 and 1506-8

7/15 15 paintings to see in London

William Shakespeare associated with John Taylor, circa 1600-1610

National Portrait Gallery London

8/15 15 paintings to see in London

George Stubbs, Whistlejacket, about 1762

The National Gallery, London

9/15 15 paintings to see in London

John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821

The National Gallery, London

10/15 15 paintings to see in London

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) Montagne Sainte-Victoire c.1887 Oil on canvas 66.8 x 92.3 cm

11/15 15 paintings to see in London

Sir John Everett Millais Ophelia 1851-2

Tate

12/15 15 paintings to see in London

Georges Seurat, Bathers at Asnières, 1884

The National Gallery, London

13/15 15 paintings to see in London

Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1839

The National Gallery, London

14/15 15 paintings to see in London

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Giovanni (?) Arnolfini and his Wife, 1434

The National Gallery, London

15/15 15 paintings to see in London

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, about 1520-3

The National Gallery, London

1/15 15 paintings to see in London

Hans Holbein the Younger, Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (‘The Ambassadors’), 1533

The National Gallery, London

2/15 15 paintings to see in London

John Singer Sargent 1856-1925 Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose 1885-6 Oil on canvas support: 1740 x 1537mm, painting

Tate Britain/Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1887

3/15 15 paintings to see in London

Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1888

The National Gallery, London

4/15 15 paintings to see in London

Claude Monet, The Water-Lily Pond, 1899

The National Gallery, London

5/15 15 paintings to see in London

Thomas Gainsborough, Mr and Mrs Andrews, about 1750

The National Gallery, London

6/15 15 paintings to see in London

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin with the Infant Saint John the Baptist adoring the Christ Child accompanied by an Angel (‘The Virgin of the Rocks’), about 1491/2-9 and 1506-8

7/15 15 paintings to see in London

William Shakespeare associated with John Taylor, circa 1600-1610

National Portrait Gallery London

8/15 15 paintings to see in London

George Stubbs, Whistlejacket, about 1762

The National Gallery, London

9/15 15 paintings to see in London

John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821

The National Gallery, London

10/15 15 paintings to see in London

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) Montagne Sainte-Victoire c.1887 Oil on canvas 66.8 x 92.3 cm

11/15 15 paintings to see in London

Sir John Everett Millais Ophelia 1851-2

Tate

12/15 15 paintings to see in London

Georges Seurat, Bathers at Asnières, 1884

The National Gallery, London

13/15 15 paintings to see in London

Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1839

The National Gallery, London

14/15 15 paintings to see in London

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Giovanni (?) Arnolfini and his Wife, 1434

The National Gallery, London

15/15 15 paintings to see in London

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, about 1520-3

The National Gallery, London

9. Horse and Rider, Elisabeth Frink, Bond Street entrance to the Royal Academy, 1974

Another man-and-horse bronze sculpture but very different from the Watts. Elisabeth Frink called it “an ageless symbol of man and horse”, and it’s curiously immobile, serene, stylised and simple. The rider has no tack, no saddle, not even reins; one hand rests on the horse’s mane, the other on his flank. Both look to the left; at what, no one knows. It’s a serene and enigmatic piece. And in its new position (it was on Dover Street) there’s less chance of getting run over during slow looking. 

10. Self Portrait as St Catherine of Alexandria, Artemisia Gentileschi, National Gallery from next year, 1615-17

This one is only going on show next year after restoration, but it will be unmissable. It’s a self-portrait of this extraordinary woman artist, the first woman member of the artists’ Academy of the Arts of Drawing in Florence. Artemisia, an artist’s daughter, was raped by the painter her father brought into his studio to teach her perspective; the trial was a sensation. This self-portrait was painted in the following period and shows her in the guise of the patron saint of scholars. By identifying with this hugely popular virgin martyr, this depiction is an extraordinary act of self-assertion. It’s a wonderful portrait, only rediscovered in France last year: it’ll be worth the wait.