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.