Ghosts of the Arnolfini Portrait

Many people write about deep and memorable experiences they had when standing before this famous painting. Some even report on ‘falling into its endless depth’ or something of this sort.

May be they are very lucky, those ‘fallen into’ (or ‘soaring over’, another typical expression when confronting with this piece). I have to admit, sadly, that my experience was rather bleak. May be I was already very tired, by walking through the whole National Gallery. Or may be because I was disappointed that they did not allow to take pictures in the gallery.  I was definitely disappointed, angry even, with the way how the gallery displays this work by van Eyck: it was placed in a very dark hall, in a corner, in a very uninventive way, worser than Ikea is displaying a 10 euro a piece work in the store.

This is not a real picture from the gallery, it’s more my emotional recollection of how this painting was displayed:

It’s also not even my own photo, I found the image in the internet (I was not allowed to take pictures, though as I see many people manage to snap few shots in the Gallery).

The collection of the Gallery is astonishing and that’s why one would expect an equally superb treatment of these works and creation of a very special, elevating atmosphere to view them. Instead, its halls have the same dusty and suffocating feeling as they had, I guess, 100 or (soon to be) 200 years ago, with the same old babushkas-guardians in every hall (and they they don’t even have to be really old ladies to be babushkas, they just behave like babushkas).

But back to van Eyck. The good thing is that the painting is in fact quite large,  almost 85cm in height; I somehow imagine it much smaller, more like A4 size. I knew the actual size, and even used it to calculate the ‘size’ of its mirror in real life, but still, our mind has its own logic. It is perhaps because of this relatively large size many people report that the painting starts emitting a very characteristic ‘light’ and indeed creates a sensation of the ‘space’ almost sucking the viewers into the painting’s world.

I almost decided to order a large-scale print – they swear that it is printed from a high-rez digital copy – but at the end I didn’t. Yet another reason for disappointment with the gallery, since they do have such an image but are too greedy to share it with the world through the Google Art Project (though I have to admit, the zoom-in display on their own website is not bad).   I wonder if a ‘real size’ reproduction would work in the same, or similar way as the real painting? With all these ‘soaring’ and ‘falling in’ effect?

But that’s about it, the rest was all ‘very bad’. The hall was very dark, as I said, and so was the painting itself. It looks like it wasn’t restored for ages (if at all – British restoration school is known to be one of the most conservative, they don’t even talk about ‘restoration’, but rather ‘preservation’ of work). In any case, the majority of the details are impossible to recognize now (for example, the medallions on the mirror look like dark blots). Or this tiny dog – currently it’s not more than a dark sport on the painting, with almost indistinguishable hairs. It’s nowhere near to the view usually presented on the copies:


Ok, some ‘good things’ to end this otherwise gloomy posting: I bought a couple of small but interesting books published by the gallery in the series called A Closer Look; one on the restoration of art works (Conservation of Paintings), the other about revealing fake art (Deceptions and Discoveries). There is nothing about Arnolfini portrait in these books, but there are many other interesting projects and stories (I will try to share some of them, later).

In one of the book I found only one picture related to the Arnolfini story; a photo of 1947, of some Ian Rawlins who studies the colors of this painting. Besides its historical value, this picture also provides the feeling of the scale: you can see how big this panel is.



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