Thursday 20 March 2014


Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice National Gallery London to 15 June

This is a stunning and visually thrilling exhibition. The Martyrdom of St George (above) really grabs your attention when you first glimpse it through a doorway at the NG's Veronese show. It still lives in a church in Verona; it's hard to get to and hard to see. In the NG's main galleries it's well lit and looks absolutely magnificent. It's a glorious masterpiece of Italian art that few have seen.

Veronese is often cited as part of the Venetian triumvirate TitianTintorettoVeronese, but as the catalogue explains his art was formed before he moved to Venice, and was influenced by northern artists like Moroni and the high renaissance innovations of Michelangelo and (especially) Raphael, directly and via Giulio Romano. Veronese's own particular superpower was his ability to depict drapery - those stunning shimmering fabrics are terrific. But in the St George we can see how well he assimilated the likes of Raphael in his mastery of gesture, his ability to tie together a complex group of people in an effective composition. You can see just how far he'd come by comparing the National Gallery's own conspicuously youthful Conversion of Mary Magdalene.

Veronese is a good subject for a monographic show. His work is familiar; he's a famous artist well-represented in most major collections. The National Gallery has ten, including the stupendous Family of Darius before Alexander. But unlike, say, Rembrandt or Titian we are less aware of his artistic development, or of his work as a whole. Partly that's because his style changed less, and partly it's because some of his best pictures are still in churches were they are seen less often and less well. I hate the disruption to the permanent collection from showing the exhibition in the main galleries, but the result is that we see the pictures in good natural light. Some of the altarpieces that still hang in churches probably haven't been seen so advantageously since they left the studio. But even the National Gallery's own pictures look better in these smaller rooms; nothing looks good in the giant gallery where they usually hang.

Veronese's pictures are variable. He was enormously prolific, which required a lot of assistance. Some of his pictures are rather damaged; the difference you can see in a reunited pair of portraits is striking. Above all, you get a feel for the challenges faced by the generation after the High Renaissance. Raphael had so effectively solved visual challenges that artists who followed could use his model without much thought. You see the same poses and gestures repeated, sometimes with less success. In one of his late pictures the figure of Mars was added as an awkward afterthought to a picture of Venus. 

It's already well-established that Veronese was a variable painter and an unintellectual artist, and this exhibition was never likely to shift those views. But it does establish the breadth of his achievement, pulling him out from the shadow of Titian and allowing us to see him whole. It shows familiar works to great advantage; I'd seen the Dresden Resurrection before, but it somehow impressed me much more in this exhibition, and even the National Gallery's Darius looks better in a different room. And above all it's a sheer visual feast of virtuoso painting, a purely enjoyable experience that doesn't require deep thought.

It's a good show, and it's easy to get carried away, but let's not lose our critical faculties. I have some grumpy observations too.

The overcrowding is hard to bear in a show of large paintings. I've come to realise that critics don't see the same show as the rest of us. For days before opening the National Gallery was re-tweeting accounts of the show by VIPs who get early access. And even if you get there for opening time, the galleries are stuffed full of private tour groups; you can't try to get straight to the end to enjoy a few rooms in peace ahead of the crowds. I get the sense that exhibitions just aren't meant for the little people like me; they are designed to be enjoyed only by the privileged few who get special access, because they alone can see it properly. 

The catalogue is a travesty. It's a good introduction to Veronese's art, and in parts it excels. The account of Veronese's development is insightful, particularly his encounter with Titian and Tintoretto. But it is inadequate as a catalogue of a major exhibition. Xavier Solomon's narrative account is punctuated with brief notes on the pictures in the exhibition, which are sometimes just an interruption to the flow of the text. But when it comes to the actual catalogue entries, we just get brief facts with no narrative. Early on he cites the importance of condition in understanding Veronese's work, but it never gets another mention in the text. The final chapter mentions his workshop, but there is no account of workshop participation in individual pictures. In parts it seems that he is padding the text to fill the word-count assignment; the account of the famous encounter with the Inquisition is dragged out for pages (read this by Jonathan Jones instead).

Charles Saumarez Smith recently argued with Nicholas Penny that exhibitions foster scholarship. This catalogue makes the opposite case; a rushed deadline meant an unacceptable book. Ironically the Royal Academy, which Saumarez Smith directs, produces the worst exhibition catalogues of all - illustrated handlists with some celebrity comments. Wasted opportunities all round.

The lighting is generally a highpoint of this exhibition, but a picture from Turin is shown in a vitrine with such awful glass that it is effectively invisible. It shouldn't have been borrowed if they can't display it properly; there is still time to change the vitrine, and the cost will be well worth it. And the lack of drawings is a great shame, given how important draughtsmanship was to Veronese's art. I quite understand that they couldn't be shown in the main skylit galleries, but a selection in Room 1 (currently closed) would have been a great complement to the show.

I got a season ticket, which is the only way to see the more crowded exhibitions. These are my initial impressions, but I look forward to going again and again over the coming weeks.


  1. As London is out of my reach, please post any other thoughts you have about the exhibition and the pieces in it. In effect be our eyes there :) It will be much appreciated

  2. You were lucky to obtain a season ticket. I went along today, the second public day of the exhibition to buy one and was told they had "sold out", only a limited number available. However the front of house people did not know how many were sold, or whether more would be released. They were most unhelpful.

    1. Unfortunately they don't release more once they're sold. I bought mine months ago. I've found the information desk to be very helpful at the NG, but ticket desk staff and guards often have no idea. They didn't even know which entrance to use for Veronese!

  3. "I get the sense that exhibitions just aren't meant for the little people like me; they are designed to be enjoyed only by the privileged few who get special access, because they alone can see it properly."

    With respect, I think this is a slightly overdramatic response to a simpler point - they set too much store by visitor numbers and not enough by quality of visitor experience.

    Are these shows only financially viable if people are packed in like sardines?

    1. No, I mean this quite literally. It's certainly true that they incur big sunk costs and therefore have an incentive to pack people in. But the thing I've noticed recently is just how many people get privileged access - to the extent that it's now impossible to find a quiet time, because the galleries are already quite full before opening. They take a lot of care in the hanging and display of exhibitions, but the display can only be appreciated by people who can see it when it's quiet.

      That said, I'm pleased to say that it's been much quieter on my subsequent visits, especially on Friday night. That's good for me, but still no credit to the NG as they've done all they can to pack them in and they permit maximum attendance levels far above those that can comfortably be accommodated.