It’s the Canalettos that really inspire me on our visit to an empty National Gallery. We have not reached the official Covid-19 crisis government lockdown but it is the nervy and surreal week leading up to it, tourists and visitors have vanished from central London leaving the National Gallery clear for me and my wife to see great Art in largely empty rooms. It’s a unique and at the same time eerie experience.
We had recently joined the National Gallery as there were so many great exhibitions coming up and had luckily managed to get to a Titian members preview the previous day. Now, with the threat of a lockdown looming, we decided to make a last indulgent dash to see some of the wonders of the history of painting. Trafalgar Square was desolate, the gallery was queue-less, the rooms silent and empty of visitors. This was a mixed blessing indeed.
In this emotional and heady time you’d think the more outwardly emotional pieces would stand out, such as Vanitas by Frans Hals, yet it is the more academic vistas of Canaletto that capture the moment and imagination.
There are many components to Canaletto’s paintings. The dreamy blue skies replicating the real ones that reign over London during this time allow me a feeling of serenity to both observe and experience both the art and our new reality.
The perspective of the buildings and canals draws my psyche into this world by expanding the space in which it can breathe and roam. The rendering of the brickwork and marble columns of the apartments and palaces of Venice, some in good condition, some not, gives a realism to a place and time. The deep focus adds to the monumentality of the cityscape, giving the figures an aura of intimacy and humility. The reflections of all this adding a hallucinative quality to the canal’s waters.
A Regatta On The Grand Canal transfixes me. The feeling of spectacle, shared endeavour and celebration reaches out from the frame. Everyone is going about their business, whether in boats or in the streets or in the windows of the houses and apartments, on the steps of churches and palaces.
The streets (canals) are crammed with hundreds of people which Canaletto cleverly paints with precisely placed and shaped blobs of colour and black. For a technique so structural and ordered it is amazing how alive he conveys a supposedly chaotic scene.
Then lastly there is Canaletto’s systematic and almost cartoonish covering of white highlights he places all over the painting’s finely rendered details, a controlled but playful counterpoint to all the painstaking work towards realism that went on before. No-one or nothing in the picture escapes this whimsy, the gondoliers, the masked ladies and gentlemen, the festooned parade boats and the waters agitated by all the activity.
Not only can you hear the people you can smell the air, you feel present there. It is all the more seductive as our real situation is changing the whole way we see gatherings of this kind. They are taking on a threatening quality rather than a celebratory one. This picture is not only of a time long past, it also seems nostalgic for a way of being that evokes more emotion in me than might have done if looking at it pre-Covid-19. The irony is not lost on me that the region that the virus has hit the hardest in Europe is Northern Italy, and Venice has cancelled the very event I am witnessing in the painting.
Our psyches have been changed surprisingly quickly by this pandemic, people just near each other glimpsed on television or in pictures such as this, create a feeling of immediate aversion and then a sentimentality for a bygone era.
I walk out of the gallery with a heightened respect for this master, back into a world that mirrors his celebration of architecture. The monumental expanse of Trafalgar Square sits under the same blue sky as a Canaletto. Empty of crowds and traffic the energy and life of the paintings seem an indulgence of another age.