Let there be light

by gabeatkinson / 17 January, 2013
But not from LEDs, or our eye gets much more information than any artist would intend.
Contrasting lighting on Bronzino’s Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time

Since London’s National Gallery opened its doors in Trafalgar Square in the middle of the 19th century, it has set the pace for the collection and exhibition of the great art of Europe. It was the first public gallery to restore the works in its care. In 1844, it put on show the first three old master paintings it had cleaned – there was immediate public outrage. The works, critics argued, had been destroyed. A parliamentary inquiry cleared the gallery of any wrongdoing, but the row bubbled along for more than a century.

In 1947, under the direction of the great populariser of art history, Kenneth Clark, it put back on its walls its collection cleaned while in storage during World War II. For the next 20 years, the argument to clean or not to clean rumbled on – the art world being divided into two camps: one welcoming the paintings restored to the brilliance they had when they left the artist’s studio; and the other believing the gallery had removed, along with the dirty obscuring varnish and soot, the tinted glazes artists themselves had applied. As a young curator, I was in the former camp. Eventually, we all got over it, and the previous divide of traditional art being dull and brown and contemporary art being colourful and daring was proved a myth – much to the benefit of art.

Now, the National Gallery seems to be poised on the brink of another divisive argument about how art should look – and this time I am on the other side of the battle of old and new. The new controversy is lighting.

The gallery had devised a brilliant mixture of tungsten and filtered natural light to create an optimum environment to see art at its best. Colour, after all, is made by light – a Goldilocks situation of too much, too little or just right; a balance to be struck between the right colour return from the pigments and minimum damage from ultraviolet.

But now, in this climate-change conscious age, some committee has decided the National Gallery used too much energy and replaced tungsten with light emitting diodes – not only saving on the power bills but reducing the gallery’s CO2 emissions by 400 tonnes a year. A small win for the planet, but a massive blow to aesthetics. LED and pigments are a rotten fit – producing as much subtlety of tone and nuance of colour as a dairy shop front on Auckland’s Dominion Rd. Our eye gets much more information than any artist would intend.

Flooded with a relentless, unforgiving light, the paintings look less like works of art than over-lit colour transparencies. Angelo Bronzino’s mid-16th century Triumph of Venus – a poster work for that early cleaning programme – once a triumph of brilliant colour and vivacious flesh, is transmogrified by the glare of LEDs into a bland and superficial Stepford wife. Technology has stolen the art.
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage


Jane Goodall: We can live in harmony with nature
76836 2017-07-25 00:00:00Z Profiles

Jane Goodall: We can live in harmony with nature

by Sally Blundell

A world in which humans live in harmony with nature is still possible, says veteran environmental campaigner Jane Goodall.

Read more
Film festival 2017: David Larsen on the highlights (and lowlights) so far
76887 2017-07-25 00:00:00Z Movies

Film festival 2017: David Larsen on the highlights…

by David Larsen

The New Zealand International Film Festival is back for another year and Metro's David Larsen is in his happy place.

Read more
Richard Dawkins' truth, science and tediousness
76845 2017-07-25 00:00:00Z Books

Richard Dawkins' truth, science and tediousness

by Danyl McLauchlan

Richard Dawkins’ profound admiration for himself comes through loud and clear – with footnotes.

Read more
As anti-vaccination numbers rise, is it a case of herd stupidity, not immunity?
75047 2017-07-25 00:00:00Z Health

As anti-vaccination numbers rise, is it a case of …

by Sarah Lang

It’s astonishing just how many well-educated, presumably semi-intelligent New Zealanders subscribe to and try to spread this kind of nonsense.

Read more
The dreaded autocorrect disaster
76840 2017-07-25 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

The dreaded autocorrect disaster

by Joanne Black

Autocorrect may hide your texting and typing bloopers, but it won’t stop your blushes.

Read more
Retailers say competition laws block charge on plastic bags
76850 2017-07-24 16:14:42Z Environment

Retailers say competition laws block charge on pla…

by RNZ

1.5 billion plastic bags are used here each year and on average it takes just 12 minutes before a bag enters the waste stream.

Read more
Crossword 1037 answers and explanations
6 reasons your next family holiday should be in Taranaki
76777 2017-07-24 08:32:07Z Travel

6 reasons your next family holiday should be in Ta…

by Venture Taranaki

How to holiday like a local in the Naki.

Read more