Bewitched, Bothered, and Bemasked: A post-covid trip to the National Gallery

Published by Florence McCrae on July 12th 2020, 1:01pm

The last time I visited the National Gallery, coronavirus was still confused with the name of a beer. Now, 111 days since its doors were shut, the gallery has reopened, and it looks a little different from before.

In its almost two centuries of existence, the National Gallery has done well to remain open in spite of considerable external pressures. During the Second World War, the museum was shut for a mere two days, paltry when one considers their current hibernation has taken over one hundred.

For the gallery’s director, Gabriele Finaldi, the reopening on Wednesday felt similar to coming “out of exile”. The gallery’s reopening – the first major museum in the country to do so following the 4 July lockdown easing, is, according to Finaldi, a moral obligation as much as a cause for celebration.

He notes: “All of us at the National Gallery felt a responsibility of reopening as soon as we could. The tradition here is one of resilience, staying open through the war years and so on, so we felt the weight of that responsibility and we wanted to be there for the visiting public as soon as we possibly could.”

During the 111 days of closure, the museum found itself fortunate to have “invested strongly in our digital capabilities over the past few years and were able to make the switch relatively quickly.” The website has a clear and comprehensive online collection, and a wealth of contextual information without which it is unclear how easy coping amid the pandemic would have been.

Having relied so heavily upon technology amid the pandemic, one hopes this is a catalyst for further investment in future. Finaldi seems hopeful, noting: “If there’s one thing that that I think we’ve all learnt during this period, it’s that digital is clearly an extremely valuable tool and means of communication – but it needs to be much more embedded in what we do.”

While the National Gallery has worked in conjunction with the Google Arts and Culture Application – a resource that ensures members of the public can view Van Goghs and Vermeers from the comfort of their own home, the museum’s director believes there is nothing quite like the real thing. “Returning brought the sheer excitement of seeing the pictures as physical objects once again, rather than as images on a telephone screen or laptop at home,” he notes, continuing, “To renew those physical connections with the works of art – to be able to approach them close up, to stand back, to look at them in different lights – was a very moving experience for me.”

The return to absolute normality is almost impossible at present. Instead of being able to roam freely in the gallery as we could in times past, the museum has instigated strict routes which visitors must follow. Route A will take visitors from the Wilton Diptyph to Raphael, B will track art history from Rubens to Van Gogh, while C will ensure visitors see everything from Bronzino to Monet. Social distancing will be enforced in the same way as supermarkets and other public spaces.

For those who fear this new system will prevent them from fully making use of their gallery experience, Finaldi offers a comforting word. “People will of course be allowed to linger … we want people to feel they can visit the gallery freely,” he says. However, staff are encouraged to move people on should the gallery become overcrowded.

It is as yet unclear just how great the demand to return to the National Gallery, and the cohort of larger museums will be. In a more conventional year, the gallery would welcome around 65 per cent of its visitors from countries outside the UK. With travel restrictions still in place, it is unclear precisely what the impact on this will be.

For Finaldi, these first few weeks of opening will be indicative of the museum’s immediate future. He wonders if the pandemic will have a similar impact upon attendance as 9/11 did on the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which took some five years before visitor numbers returned to normal. Perhaps the global nature of the pandemic will be its saving grace in some perverse manner.

The nature of art as an almost therapeutic avenue is clearly on Finaldi’s mind. He notes: “We want to be a part of the nation’s recovery story and by opening the doors and letting the public back in to see our inspiring pictures, we want to make an important contribution to the process.” For him, as much for anyone who has been itching to return to the gallery, there is an almost rehabilitative role to the gallery, as it allows members of the public to walk its hallowed halls for the first time in some 111 days.

Yet Finaldi’s lexicon when discussing the return to the gallery belies just how much he needs a return to normality. He notes: “We are the same gallery you know and love, just with added social distancing and one-way art routes.”

Not all the changes to the National Gallery are to its detriment. Indeed, the three or so months of closure has allowed for the museum to restore and replace Van Dyck’s Equestrian Portrait of Charles I, on show following two years’ worth of restoration work. Other such changes include an extension to the gallery’s Titian: Love, Desire, Death exhibition, closed after a mere three days in March. Thanks to pulling some rather tense strings, the gallery has managed to extend the show until 17 January 2021.

One wonders precisely what the gallery makes of Oliver Dowden’s triumph, turning him overnight from zero to hero. Following the 2008 recession, galleries such as this were forced to bolster their own coffers from ticket prices, with the National Gallery suddenly responsible for finding over 50 per cent of its own income. For Finaldi, the pandemic has opened up old debates, as he notes: “We are in discussions with government about how our financial position can be supported, not just now but for the longer term.”

The first thing that strikes me as I return to the National Gallery for the first time in three months is the size of the queue. In the pre-Covid era, such a line may be confused for the most exclusive of nightclubs, now the bemasked individuals of which it comprises belie a change of circumstance.

Having misread the National Gallery’s guidelines, I arrive bang on noon, the time slot I have been allocated in order to cap the number of visitors at any one time. It transpires I ought to have arrived some 15 minutes prior to this slot and the couple in front of me let me slip ahead of them, proving that kindness is the one thing that Covid-19 cannot touch. A frustrated few who did not get the memo attempt to blag their way into the gallery, though it seems that luck is not on their side today.

The queue moves swiftly, and we are instructed to have our tickets ready, though no one checks them. Smuggling oneself into the National Gallery would be a strange decision, even after 108 days of lockdown. We go through the security screening process, the same as before lockdown, though are now instructed to liberally sanitise our hands using a contraption that would not look out of place on a spaceship. Masks are advised, but not compulsory.

As we enter the gallery for the first time in months, it is difficult to quite describe the feeling in the air. It is by no means tense, nor sombre, not hopeful, nor hopeless. It is quiet. The visor adorned guards stand around the gallery, socially distanced from one another and from us, each holding a laminated map of the three distinct routes one is now permitted to take around the gallery. It is, as it transpires, entirely possible to take all of the routes should you so desire. Having been starved of art for months by the pandemic, I jump at the chance.

The first route, helpfully named A, takes me through a short history of Renaissance Art. Timed at approximately 15 minutes, guests are instructed to walk clockwise as they peruse the hallowed halls. It is akin to being in church. The smallest rooms, where social distancing is quite impossible, are cordoned off, encouraging visitors to peer in. The detail is lost, but the overall effect is not.

The reopening of the National Gallery – the earliest major museum to do so in the UK, is aided by the fact that by and large, the pieces on display here are two dimensional. The triptychs on the first route are the exception to the rule, though it is possible that their cases have never been so clean.

I later find out that it is quite impossible to do both routes B and C without the help of a very kindly guard, and plump for the latter as my next route of choice. Following the arrows on the floor I move from piece to piece, room to room, travelling through centuries of art in a matter of minutes. Alastair Sooke would be quite proud, I am sure.

The introduction of social distancing in the galleries is a nightmare for the spatially unaware, and there are some who seem to struggle with the concept of social distancing more than most. It is impossible to hold a grudge at those who are so enamoured by a Turner they forget themselves momentarily. For others, social distancing has become as much part of daily life as brushing one’s teeth. One wonders if the future holds us all two metres apart.

Route C ends at the Bridget Riley mural, with arrows indicating the choice of either the shops or the bathroom. I find myself at the end when I had rather fancied myself a chance to begin again – saving route B and the promise of Vermeers until last. It is then, the hero of the piece comes into play.

In the National Gallery, the most important people are not the age-old painters, nor the esteemed and bejewelled subjects of almost impossible works. The most important people are the guards. For my gallery-based adventure, it is they who truly saved the day.

Explaining my predicament to one guard, who swiftly summons another, I soon find myself escorted, quite contrary to the one-way system, to see the Vermeer I had been waiting 111 days for. It is worth the wait, as his work always is, and I find myself quite alone with the piece for around five minutes. It is perfection.

I dwell with her for a little longer, becoming concerned it seems I am planning a heist before I move on for the remainder of route B. The newly renovated room 32 is an unexpected delight – and a shame it appears on only one of the three routes introduced by the gallery. The architecture is almost able to compete with some of the pieces on the walls (and is arguably considerably more impressive than one piece which comprises of a rather concerning number of squashed cherubs). Visitors remain here more than elsewhere.

Part of me misses the old gallery in the same way I miss the old world. I miss being able to just pop in on a lunch break and check on the Rokeby Venus, or to loop back on myself to consider Van Gogh’s painting of crabs one more time. There is a structure to this new world that will demand some time to get used to.

However, there are more silver linings to this new National Gallery than I had anticipated. For some of the more renowned pieces, it is now possible to see them closer than ever before thanks to the employment of strict social distancing measures. The new routes also take visitors to parts of the gallery they have never frequented before, and the new loans that litter the walls make even the most seasoned visitor find something they have not seen before.

Our long isolation from the National Gallery proves that the adage 'absence makes the heart grow fonder' rings true, now more than ever.

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Authored By

Florence McCrae
Literary Editor
July 12th 2020, 1:01pm

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