Travelling light and full of enthusiasm on an adventure of discoveries and rewards.
Starting on a sunny morning at the Prado and coming face to face, without realising its scale and impact from reproductions, Velazquez’ Las Meninas - everything perfect - magnificent and that rare ‘other thing’.
Almost as though you suddenly opened the wrong door and they haven’t as yet noticed you, maybe they never will - or maybe three of them have or something else has caught their attention. Will they remember the moment as much, when you close the door and move on? All seem blissfully unconcerned, quite happy and not even a glance from the dog.
A very special masterpiece, a very special experience. The courts dwarfs, beautifully painted, sensitive, compelling. The enjoyment, every time, of seeing these and many of his other great works - rewarding.
Then onto the stunning Goya’s. The colourful, joyful scenes in the cartoons for tapestries. The portraits, the Majas, the startling large portrait of the Royal family. The mysterious and worrying Saturn devouring one of his children. The shock of the impassioned, lantern lit, the third of May 1808. The orderly firing squad, the panic and the fear, the stark white shirt, the crucifix arms. Awe inspiring.
Deafness and the wonderful, disturbing black paintings - thrilling and exhausting. A true public and private painter. Murillo, Ribera, Zurbaran and all the masterpieces each morning and - ‘private’.
Then north to the Louvre. The Winged Victory - majestic. Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, Delacroix’s scenes from the massacres at Chios. Courbet’s painting of his studio - all epic, and gentle presense of Chardin and Corot, who I see as ‘private’. Rembrandt, Vermeer, De Hooch............the still life and marine painters, that calm stillness and pin drop quiet. And eagerly more splendours.
Time to leave then back to the RCA for my continuation year. Then my first studio, and more adventures, discoveries and rewards.
The National Gallery London. I like visiting late when the gallery is emptying, passing sometimes one or two enthusiasts dozing contently in the comfortable seating. Possibly pleasantly exhausted by the masterworks they have enjoyed. There are the paintings that I always look forward to seeing, finding new things in them and also discovering ‘new’ works. Stopping here and there on my way into room 4 dominated by Holbein’s The Ambassadors. The two ‘presenses’ proud and enigmatic in their sumptuous finery, with the collection remarkably painted and meaningful objects, prominent on the floor, the skull and high in the top left hand corner, almost unnoticed, the crucifix and the ultimate meaning.
This painting always has, when I’ve been there, people standing, sitting in front it or listening to their audioguide, compelled by its brilliance? power? ‘other thing’? The Titians, The Death of Actaeon, the rapid daring brushwork that become flowers, no hesitation no doubts, whether ‘unfinished’ or not.
The fulsome portrait of a lady, confident behind the marble relief. The proud and watchful portrait of a man, the luxuriously quilted full blue sleeve. The portrait of the Venramin family, the powerful upward force of the triangular compo- sition held firmly in each corner by the children. The soft glowing colour and tender brushwork in The Madonna and Child.
Veronese and Tintoretto with their busy workshops producing large very impressive commissions. Rembrandt usually has a special ‘quiet- ness’ in his room. His portrait of Magaretha de Geer - that amazing, white framed face, fragile but strong, the hands. Powerful, gripping, unforgettable. This remarkable portrait, as with his many others, a moment of truth, refection and admiration - contemplation.
The energy and flair of Rubens, the elegance of Van Dyke. The toilet of Venus - The Rokeby Venus. An impressive seemingly effortless vari- ety of painting in all the elements. All the rich textures ‘touchable’, ‘alive’ in the intimate atmosphere and layers of space that Velasquez has created, and the masterly out of focus, out of reach reflection in the mirror - intriguing. Sublime.
Caravaggio, The Supper at Emmaus, light and darkness falling dramatically into place on all the surfaces carefully considered. From the light on the seat of the chair, through changing gradations, leaving its shadows as it moves to the wall and the shadows behind the presence of christ.
To enter room 34 and see two welcoming Constables at the end, changing in light and colour, each time as you approach them, and all the details to discover in his work and other great painters. The brilliant and forward looking Turners. Continuously moving paint across his canvases in new ways from the early carefully detailed works to the last broad, sweeping - stand back and admire - statements about nature in his final visions.
Joseph Wright’s The Experiment - deservedly a popular success. Stubbs proud Whistlejacket, the sheen, the eye - monumental. Recently on a crowded Christmas visit, through moving bodies, on the floor in front of the Stubbs, I caught a fleeting glimpse of a tiny child with a small piece of paper, totally absorbed drawing. How wonderful I thought. With my spirits lifted several degrees I continued moving on through the crowds. Gainsborough’s portraits and landscapes.
The Ingres portraits, Corot, Courbet, Delacroix. Monet, Manet, Renoir, Seurat’s sparkling small studies, his bathers - time standing still. Gaugin, Van Gough, Cezanne, Degas.......
- Other paintings I particularly look forward to seeing, the Chardin’s, Michelangelo’s The Entombment - also tender, Uccello’s Battle of San Romano - heroically impressive, Raphael’s Virgin and Child - majestic homage - awesome skill.
Some of the many works at The National, of great achievement and inspiration, that I enjoy, respect and admire. Whether I decide to see just two or three, or at other times more, I always leave feeling enriched, refreshed and with a lighter step and looking forward to my next visit.
And all the great museums, galleries, collections and exhibitions to discover and explore, whether of the past, present or ‘future’ - promising.
I enjoy going to the commercial galleries - new works, new names, familiar favourites, pleasure, sometimes shock, always something to think about, stimulate, ponder.
A visit to a gallery in Cork Street - pausing slowly past The Leger, the Picasso’s, the Miros, and on it’s white plinth a small command- ing Giacommetti, around the corner to a wall of small paintings by Braque and Gris - impressive - special - it was late - a ‘private view’. Another in Dering Street, to go up in the lift, open the gallery door and walk into a beautiful sunlit space, always with a sense of surprise and pleasure at the immaculately presented continually interesting exhibitions of quality creative works.
I have walked admiringly and carefully among the formidable ‘Barbarians’ here. With so many of these galleries, there is such a rich variety and choice to satisfy most private passions and desires. To come up to date - the Americans, Germans, British.... think of a name and you will ‘see’ the works. It’s the many various and varying qualities that they have, that make them so pleasurable, important, rewarding and memorable. It’s a very interesting, innovative and experimental time.
And the future - the new media and mediums, photography, performance, computers, digital, audio, video, multi-media, light, film, (the great iconic images), installation, conceptual, the internet and more, and others yet to be discovered and created. And then of course, there is the pen, pencil and brush. Who knows? Perhaps they are keeping it private at present. I look forward to seeing the work.
Keith Cunningham, 2002
Keith Cunningham passed away on December 4, 2014, at the age of 85.
Keith Cunningham: Unseen Paintings 1954-1960,
30 September - 13 October, Hoxton Gallery, 59 Old Street London EC1V 9HX