Let’s All Pretend Part 83

David Lee

January/February 2021

Despite grovelling worthy of Darius on our part, The Jackdaw no longer qualifies for press view invites to the National Gallery. As a result I didn’t see the Artemisia Gentileschi show in the few weeks it was open before Boris announced the second slam dunk. It was in any case fully booked months in advance by Adlestroppers up for the Cup. What an opportunity then when the gallery announced that for eight quid you could join a curator tour on the computer. One really ought to have known better. At press views the curator’s intro, the art historical equivalent of Valium, is to be ruthlessly avoided. If ever you have the misfortune to coincide with it sprint to the exit and work backwards.

This mercenary innovation was much disapproved of by State Art’s finest hypocrites, who queued up to blow raspberries … as if most of them hadn’t already seen the show free of charge. In a way you can hardly blame the Gallery for trying it on not least because blueberry muffins and Holbein rubbers aren’t exactly flying off the shelves.

Having seen Artemisia’s work in galleries all over Europe, as well as in survey exhibitions, where she is the first resort for Old Mistress tokenism, I already knew much about Artemisia because the one thing she never has been is ignored. She is wrongly but conveniently promoted as a recent ‘rediscovery’ only to lend fuel to the wokey-wokey flamethrower. It’s always been obvious to anyone prepared to open their eyes that AG is a top painter. You only have to look at the first work in the exhibition, Susannah and the Elders, which she painted when she was seventeen. No man or woman now alive could match that ability so young, or indeed in most cases even in advanced age. To my mind it looks too good for any teenager to have painted. However, Letizia is adamant. And she knows a thing or two does curator Letizia, for she is our TV Virgil.

The answer to what you get for your eight quid, apart from Letizia, is simple – not very much. I had hoped for the opportunity, which I probably won’t now experience in the flesh, to see all the pictures up close, but the film’s director had other plans and allowing intimacy with exhibits was not among them. By the end you are most familiar with Letizia’s long legs which we see walking forwards, backwards, sideways and sashaying around corners into the next gallery. Slightly on the duck-footed side is our Letizia, but still a super gel in the deportment department. And, bravo, she carries it off spiffingly in an educated tone without either notes or an autocue, and she only slips up a couple of times ­– apparently the National Gallery doesn’t stretch to re-takes.

Our ‘tour’ is preceded by the customary self-congratulatory guff, ‘Herculean efforts’ of the staff etc. etc.. It’s their job for heaven’s sake! Mercifully, she spared us ‘taking the knee’ before kicking off. Over half the thirty minutes are Letizia wading through well-worn biographical dope on Artemisia, which is nothing more than you could read free in two minutes on Wikipedia. (Most interesting was the fact that AG was illiterate until her 20s.) The last third of our measly 30-minute allocation gave us close-ups of three pictures while Letizia repeated verbatim some of what you’d already heard during the biog – a failure in editing which anyone competent should have taped and corrected straightaway. But at least now you were close enough to these few pictures to click-stop the film and get nosey. Of course, it’s nothing like actually seeing a painting, but only a fool might think it would be.

The film bombs for the reason television arts programmes always fail; that is, their makers think we are more interested in the Letizias of this world than in their subject. And amateurish camerawork throughout doesn’t help either. Clearly the gallery reduced production costs by finding an employee sufficiently coordinated to aim a camera straight. Or perhaps it was a young relative of the Director hoping for a leg up into the world of corporate videos. Whoever it was they have no future at Pinewood.

If you’re going to flog a telly programme for eight quid you’d better make sure it’s good, and eight quid for this is seriously taking the mick. Any decent national gallery, understanding that the public already pay for it to exist, would have provided this mediocre online service free from the start of the exhibition. It’s the least they could do for those who can’t afford the train fare to London and the steep admission charge.