National Gallery

· culture ·

In a bid to get out of Oxford for the day, and to get a bit of culture, we went to the National Gallery yesterday. There were a couple of good exhibitions: Thomas Jones and Bosch and Bruegel.

Jones was a Welsh artist of the late 18th century, who travelled all over Italy painting landscapes. He started off with a typical (and to me rather uninteresting) 18th century ‘Roman ruins adorned by decorative goats and and milk maids' style of painting, but gradually moved to a strikingly-modern architectural style. A series of paintings in Napoli show peeling stuccoed walls, faded shutters and hanging laundry. He really captures the strong, heavy sunlight and dark shadows perfectly, and the images would not look out of place in a modern photographer's work.

Next, we moved to the Bosch and Bruegel exhibition, which was crammed into a single small room. There were several variations on '3The Adoration of the Kings' (a nativity painting) by both artists which were quite interesting. There is always plenty to look at in their paintings, with chickens, bones and old shoes infesting the thatch of the stable. The colours are also still fantastically vivid and in wonderful condition, considering they were painted in the early 1500s. The most arresting painting for me was ‘The Crowning of the Thorns', which you can see here. In this painting, Jesus is surrounded by four men pressing in toward him maliciously. One man holds the crown of thorns in his metal gauntleted hand, while another — wearing a spiked dog collar — rests a hand on his shoulder in a menacing way. The men's attention is focused on Jesus, their expressions malevolent and showing a rather sick anticipation of the suffering they are about to inflict. Meanwhile, Jesus looks out at the viewer, calm but drawing you into the painting. He seems to be saying, "You're part of this too, you know."

I'm not a religious person, but I found the painting rather disturbing. It made me think about modern torture. If you know that torture is going on in another country, and yet you turn away (because it's too upsetting or because you don't want to believe that humans are capable of such cruelty), you are — in some sense — complicit in the act.

As a bit of light relief from this heaviness, we took a lightning tour around the rest of the permanent collection while we were there. It always amuses me how obsessed people get by famous paintings, irrespective of their merits. There were huge crowds of visitors clustered around on of Van Gogh's famous sunflower paintings, while — not three paintings away — there was a much more beautiful painting of a wheat field (Wheat Field with Cypresses). The online version gets nowhere near to doing it justice, but it has a brilliant sense of movement and life in the thick swirls of paint that he applied straight from the tube. I found a similar thing in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence: big crowds around Botticelli's Birth of Venus (yawn) and no-one at all looking at the sublime and graceful Annunciation. The painting conveys the drama of situation beautifully, and I don't think that I've ever seen an angel who looks more likely to take off into the aether at any moment.