BY Nicholas Penny in Interviews | 30 SEP 12
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Issue 1

Questionnaire: Nicholas Penny

The Director of the National Gallery, London, discusses his favourite writers and paintings, and shares his thoughts on contemporary art

BY Nicholas Penny in Interviews | 30 SEP 12

Paolo Veronese, Scorn from ‘The Four Allegories of Love’, c.1575. Courtesy: © the National Gallery, London

Can you pinpoint one work of art that inspired you to become an art historian?
I can’t recall any one work of art, but the first one that I loved — quite obsessively — was Sandro Botticelli’s Venus and Mars (c.1485). I don’t like it so much now.

Which was the first art gallery you ever visited?
The National Gallery. My father took me there when I was about seven — I think it may encourage some parents to know that I knew quite a few pictures in The National Gallery very well before I could read. In fact, I could draw Venus and Mars from memory before I could read or write.

What’s your favourite title of a work of art?
Scorn: it’s a translation of a French title that was given to one of Paolo Veronese’s ‘Four Allegories of Love’ (c.1575) more than 150 years after it was painted. No-one knows the exact subject of the painting but Scorn is spot on for the expression of the majestic woman with a flushed face framed by small but indignant flourishes of hair.

Is there one work of art in The National Gallery that you return to time and again?
There are many paintings that I deliberately seek out on a regular basis, knowing that they possess the power to take me out of myself — Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s An Allegory with Venus and Time (c.1754- 8) is one and Gabriel Metsu’s A Woman seated at a Table and a Man Tuning a Violin (c.1658) is another. I’ve put most of them into a little book called The Director’s Choice (2011).

Which art historians have inspired your own writing?
I was more interested in becoming some sort of writer on art than in becoming an art historian. I greatly admired Walter Pater — and I admire him no less today. Then I discovered the journalism of William Hazlitt, which I still find wonderful. As for art-historical connoisseurship, I was enormously impressed by a classical archaeologist of the early 20th century called Rhys Carpenter, because of his analysis of minute particulars. Later, I was influenced by John Shearman, Michael Hirst and Michael Kitson, who taught me at the Courtauld Institute and, above all, by Francis Haskell whom I met rather later and who became a very close friend.

What do you feel is missing from the collection of The National Gallery?
A good deal is missing, although it is a wonderfully comprehensive collection. For example, I believe that one of the greatest painters of the mid-19th century was Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin but his genius is only really apparent in his monumental mural paintings in Parisian church interiors. He was a far greater artist than Gustave Courbet, in my opinion. Much else could be mentioned — one might suppose that Italian painting stopped in 1780 and, indeed, because it isn’t present in The National Gallery many people do believe this!

What is the most mysterious painting in The National Gallery?
An Adoration of the Shepherds (probably from the 1630s) which was once attributed to the young Diego Velázquez and was then thought to be by Francisco de Zurbarán. Today no one has any idea who painted it, but it is a superb work and the curator, Dawson Carr, always has it on display, I’m glad to report.

Is there an art form you don’t relate to?
The art form I don’t relate to — I’d put it more strongly actually — is video because it seems to me so often merely to be an incompetent form of film, made with the excuse that it is untainted by the professionalism associated with the entertainment industry. I’m not very impressed by conceptual art nor very often by performance art. I’m uneasy with some aspects of the legacy of Marcel Duchamp.

Do you like looking at contemporary art?
I like looking at art, old and new, but I try not think of contemporary art as a separate category. I object to being asked whether I ‘like contemporary art’. The question betrays the assumption that one will look at the art of today without a critical eye.

Are there any contemporary artists you find particularly interesting?
I’m not keen to give names and there is a reason for this. The one respect in which living artists form a separate category in my mind is because as soon as you get to know one of them it is very hard to make a candid critical assessment of their art. You may wish to encourage them, especially if they are young. You may be frightened of upsetting them by over interpreting them. You may simply be frightened of them. I certainly found Lucian Freud rather frightening. I did write about him when he was alive, but it was only when I went round his exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery after his death that I was able to admit to myself that I really most admire his small paintings! I do acknowledge that he needed to paint on a large scale, of course; but the most powerful things, the most intense works, are all in my view relatively small.

Of the artists whose work hangs in The National Gallery, is there one you would have especially liked to have met?
I have no special regret that I have not met artists of the past, and I think it is a mistake to suppose that meeting an artist would help to understand their art. The intelligence and imagination of many artists really exists only in what they painted or carved or modeled. I suppose this is a rather priggish reply, but I think it is really important to keep biography out of criticism. I’ve met people who suppose, having read Marcel Proust, that it would have been wonderful to know him, but what Proust explains again and again is that the really interesting thing about writers and artists is that they aren’t as interesting as their art.

Nicholas Penny is the Director of the National Gallery, London.