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Close Examination exhibition at the National Gallery

Published 31 August 2010

Visiting an art gallery is a high-brow activity, no? It’s something that I’ve always considered in the past. Before now, I had never visited an art gallery, which is shameful considering the multitude of such venues that we are blessed with here in London.

My idea of being in an art gallery has almost certainly been distorted by depictions of such places on TV and in movies. It’s all middle aged so-and-sos prying at the wall with reading glasses and guide book in hand, I thought. Deep down, I’ve known this was an exaggeration, but I still found art museums inaccessible to some extent. I love and appreciate visually pleasing things. But the hush hush atmosphere of places such as the National Gallery never really appealed to me. That is, until the National Gallery’s current exhibition, Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries opened.

As the National Gallery website puts it, the exhibition ‘explores the vital contributions of applied science to the understanding of Old Master paintings in the National Gallery.’ For many, many years, art forgeries have been commonplace due to the great value placed on art pieces. But whilst there have been many deliberate art forgeries, there have also been cases of pictorial mistaken identity – whereby for example, an artist’s apprentice tries to emulate his master’s work, and then in the future – somewhere down the line – that work is accidentally attributed to the head artist of a studio. This sort of fakery and misattribution features heavily in the stories behind the exhibition collection. The paintings in the collection, along with their stories are beautifully laid out in six rooms: Deception & Deceit, Transformations and Modifications, Mistakes, Secrets & Conundrums and Redemption & Recovery.

‘Close Examination’ is an ideal first-timer’s gallery for a couple of reasons: firstly, a mini-documentary on the topics examined in the exhibition runs in a small ‘cinema’ room as you approach the entrance. This is an excellent addition to the gallery as it provides enough information and background knowledge to enable visitors to understand exactly how art scientists and gallery experts are uncovering the truths behind the paintings. And whereas galleries are normally just about visuals, it was nice to have something which appealed to another sense. Listening to a scientist explain the jargon behind the technology is completely different to just reading the jargon explanations yourself. Secondly, this gallery is about so much more than just looking at pretty pictures. It’s curated in such a way that the viewer is probing the paintings, asking themselves which version of a painting is a copy or if a painting is much newer than a seller has stated. Quite helpfully, the paintings are not just labelled, but sit alongside their case studies. All of this makes for a more ‘interactive’ sort of art exhibition, where you’ll find yourself playing detective the whole way through.

At first glance, it may seem impossible to tell which is a forgery or copy. But as the exhibition points out, signs, discourse, and the science of painting can tell us when, where, how and who made the art pieces. You will have a chance to hear about the various techniques used to uncover the ‘real’ paintings, both invasive and non-invasive, performed by scientists and well-trained gallery experts with the help of state-of-the-art scientific equipment.

You’ll find that the added mystery and fascinating stories of the paintings takes over you and therefore you’re more likely to get stuck in with examining paintings than you might normally be inclined to at an art gallery. I can safely say that Close Examination does not get boring over time. If anything, you’ll probably surprise yourself with how long you spend in the exhibition – new or old seasoned art appreciator!

From the perspective of a first-time visitor to an art gallery, I was amazed at how vivid and striking the colours of the paintings were, despite their age. The pictures were still sharp and more brilliant than a lot of art that is produced nowadays. Exhibition favourites of mine included The Virgin and Child (“The Madonna with the Iris”) by the Workshop of Albrecht Dürer and also Woman at a Window (unattributed).

I’ve always thought that art is a great tool in making science accessible, through science writing, documentaries, or installations at institutions such as the Wellcome Collection in Euston. However, I’ve never thought about the influence of science on the arts, and visiting this exhibition has highlighted how science can not only help artists create and analyse paintings, but also how science can make art more interesting and accessible. Especially those who are more inclined to a scientific way of thinking, this would be a great introduction to the somewhat daunting world of art. For those already interested in art, this really is a must-see exhibition. You’ll be surprised and amazed at what you discover! It doesn’t matter if art is a high-brow activity or not – the exhibition is gorgeously mysterious and captivating, and an absolute delight for anyone with the slightest interest in collaborations between the art and science worlds.

Close Examinations: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries
Exhibition open until the 12th September
Admission Free
The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN

  • http://londoniscool.com William K Wallace

    I had been meaning to get myself along to this…but oops I forgot about it. I personally find most of the traditional galleries a bit of bore…this however seems like it would have been interesting.

  • Lucy Pereira

    It’s a shame you missed it William! However, the next best thing is available on the National Gallery website. It’s a great collection of the pictures and stories you would have seen at the exhibition, definitely worth a read: