Perhaps the recession makes us eager to feel we’re getting more for our money. Perhaps James Cameron, Peter Jackson and the other masters of the CGI epic have led us to expect nothing less. Or perhaps the arts marketing industry has simply got really good at fuelling the hype machine. Whatever the reason, we are most definitely in the era of the arts blockbuster, where every new exhibition has to come packaged as this year’s ‘major event.’
Back in May, the Guardian’s Stephen Moss asked ‘Is the blockbuster exhibition dead?’, citing the Tate’s recent Gaugin exhibition – which took record sales but suffered brutal overcrowding – and the National Gallery’s current star show Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, for which the number of admissions has been reduced from 230 per half-hour slot to 180. He was responding to comments by Colin Tweedy, the chief executive of the Prince of Wales's charity Arts & Business, who in March called on gallery bosses to innovate new, less troublesome models for showcasing great artists.
It seems that nobody was listening. Right now we have, to name but a few, John Martin: Apocalypse for Tate Britain and Gerhard Richter’s Panorama for Tate Modern, both pulling in breathless critical acclaim as well as ticket sales; Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement at the Royal Academy of Arts trying to reinstate the painter as a revolutionary rather than a sentimental obsessed with little girls; and Grayson Perry’s joyful, subversive and sprawling The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, a curation of objects for the British Museum. And in the run up to the Olympics we are being promised a slew of blockbusters that will demonstrate London’s cultural greatness – even though all they may end up demonstrating is our lack of decent crowd control.
But there is a solution to Tweedy’s problem sitting right before our eyes; a free and fulfilling antidote to the constant round of must-see top-fives. It is called the permanent collection, and London is rich in impressive and eclectic examples. If you never saw another exhibition again, you could fill your days a hundred times over with some of the most beautiful art ever produced – in spacious, uncluttered spaces, without a time limit, and very often for free.
So this is the first in London Calling’s ‘in residence’ series of features, in which we will aim to shine a spotlight on some of the permanent artistic gems nestling in our capital’s galleries and museums. Some of them will have changed the world; some of them may have interesting histories or geneses; some of them might be highly relevant to our times; and some of them might just be personal favourites which we hope will resonate. The joy of these pieces is that they can be visited and revisited at your leisure, free from a specific exhibition gloss or narrative. They might become objects that change and grow with you, evolving as part of your life, as they have mine.
Let’s start with the Madonna del Prato, or Madonna of the Meadow, by Giovanni Bellini, tucked away in Room 1 on the ground floor of the National Gallery. For me, this simple religious scene is the most beautiful example of a culturally laden genre that dominated centuries of European art.