I went to the National Gallery of Wales, a few minutes’ walk from where I live. It must be nearly fifteen years since I last visited. Thinking I can go there any time, of course I never do. I’m sure you’ll agree that where art is concerned, there is simply no comparison between a print and the real thing. It’s like talking on the phone compared to meeting in person. Hidden life, expression, warmth and character are suddenly apparent when encountered face to face.
This gallery holds the biggest collection of Impressionist paintings outside of Paris (much to the apparent puzzlement of the French). In pride of place are three of Monet’s water-lily scenes. I’ve never been that taken by the main Impressionists. Maybe the preponderance of Impressionist prints on calendars and suchlike has rendered them ordinary in my mind. I appreciate their brilliance, but they don’t sing to me like some others do. In real life though, those I’ve seen are dazzlingly fresh and tangible. The colours in these three seem to come from a palette outside of a normal earthly spectrum, and hold at least three dimensions in their sway.
I later found myself alone in a rather spooky portrait room. Dimly lit faces peered ominously down at me above stiff collars or ruffs. None of them looked happy to see me. Keen to find a way out, I suddenly spied three Turner storms shining from a corner. I was glad of the chance to pay my respects to his genius. Who else can create atmosphere like Turner? I could almost feel the sea mist on my face and hear waves cracking on the rocks, even though the paintings were really quite small.
Then my favourites found me: the Pre-Raphaelites. Rossetti’s “Fair Rosamund” caught me unexpectedly and tears came to my eyes. You would not believe the detail and the depth of colour. You would not believe that her hair was made of paint, and that one could not reach out and pluck the flower from it.
What I love most about Pre-Raphaelite painting is that it represents a search for lost truth and realism. It seeks a return to child-like purity, innocence and lack of self-consciousness. The fact that such qualities can be regained and re-discovered even when they have been temporarily mislaid, I find very encouraging. One can draw a parallel in this sense between Pre-Raphaelite painting and the spiritual life.
I felt overcome with reverence then for the attention and love that went into every single painting in the gallery, as well as the struggle and intensity that must have been part of it. Each artist chose the exact hue and shape of every stroke. Probably nothing mattered to that artist when it was placed on the canvas, except that one single stroke. The hive of every creation – Godly or human – must hold the nectar of inspiration.
If, like me, you have not been to the gallery for years, go. Tread softly and absorb the genius. Perhaps, like me, you will leave with more care for the perfection of your own work.