If there are two people that bear grisly resemblance to how we all feel right now, they are Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife, currently taking centre stage at The National Gallery’s exhibition Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites. Austere, composed and sombre, the two figures in Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait embody the January blues in their conservative getups, before January was even a Thing, and before Christmas was event that defeated us all.
The painting has confused and challenged audiences since it was painted in 1434. Is the woman pregnant? Are the man and the woman shown married? Why is the man holding up his hand in that priestly fashion? What’s with the oranges on the window-sill? Is “disguised symbolism” really A Thing, or a reactive understanding of a work? Etc. Etc. Once you see it you instantly realise you already know it, but The Arnolfini Portrait doesn’t, for most, conjure up an image in the mind’s eye of the (surprisingly) small painting of an Italian merchant couple and their dog at home in Bruges.
Bizarrely, The Arnolfini Portrait isn’t the first painting on offer in the contained but considered exhibition, showing until April 2018. It is, however, breathtaking in its precision and its almost luminous quality, and it is clearly celebrated as the most significant piece in the exhibition, for every other painting shown is linked back to Eyck’s double portrait.
As with all exhibitions, curators display works that make new links between various works and the effects or influences that certain artists had on one another. Reflections is no exception. Susan Foister (Deputy Director of Early Netherlandish, German and British Paintings at the National Gallery) and Alison Smith (Lead Curator of British Art to 1900 at Tate) have undoubtedly succeeded in displaying works and linking them to one another in a slightly unexpected fashion. Take, for example, the room dedicated to The Lady of Shallott: five works are shown including the well-known favourites such as John William Waterhouse’s oil depiction but also the less established representations, Elizabeth Siddal’s sketch, for example. It is pretty, and enjoyable, and reminds the viewer of Tennyson’s poem, but the connection back to Van Eyck is slightly lost in the quagmire. Presumably the link is the mirror in the poem, although this isn’t entirely obvious.
However, the obvious doesn’t sit well with everyone (some prefer to scrutinise the various hidden meanings or representations – if only I could), and for that reason, Reflections is proving popular, and deservedly so. It is interesting to see how artists incorporated mirrors, light and reflections in their works – perhaps an element of portraiture that one often looks past. It is unusual to view such a diverse collection of works: because the unifying theme is mirrors, the audience gains an insight through the keyhole of homes throughout the ages. There are also some particularly enjoyable treats on display, such as Sir Edward Burne-Jones’ Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor, whereby the latter confronts her husband’s mistress before killing her.
Reflections is fun, it’s historical, and it’s a jolly good means to beat the January blues.
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