London, with its numerous museums, made quite an impression on me. Naively I thought that one visit per museum would be enough to get a grip of what they offer, with probably some extra time put aside for the British Museum and National Gallery, considering the enormity of their collections. After spending two full days at the British Museum, going gaga over its collection of ancient Mesopotamian and Assyrian art, I knew that even a week wouldn't be enough to do justice to the collections of this museum, reflecting the far-flung outreach of the once mighty British Empire.
A country of adventurous travelers and insatiable art collectors, Great Britain has become the biggest depository of world art treasures. Nevertheless, the country gets nervous at the prospect of important artworks being sold abroad, especially to the Getty Museum. I was disappointed at not being able to see Raphael's tiny Madonna of the Pink, which now belongs to the National Gallery but is currently away as part of a travelling exhibition. Last year, after it became known that the Getty was ready to buy it from a private collector for about $50 million, a public outcry ensued and eventually enough private money was collected to stop the shipping of the painting across the Atlantic.
At the Victoria and Albert Museum I came across a famous sculpture of Three Graces by Antonio Canova, which was once at the center of a prolonged fight between the Getty and the British authorities. The Brits, by extending deadlines again and again, refused export permission, in the hope that someone would come up with the money to keep the sculpture in the country. This beautiful sculpture, with three life-size, gently embracing nude figures, once stood in place of honor in a specially created architectural environment in a private estate in Scotland. But now, presented rather indifferently among hundreds of other artworks at V&A;, it feels rather overlooked. I watched tourists pass by without paying it much attention and thought that Three Graces would enjoy more adulation had they been sold to the Getty, where they would unquestionably hold a place of honor.
The National Gallery, which I visited six times, has become an obsession. Seeing for the first time so many of my favorite Old Master paintings was like trying to quench your thirst on a hot day with Champagne -- the more you have, the more thirsty you become. Two unfinished paintings by a young Michelangelo; The Madonna with Child and The Entombment of Christ, are so astonishingly fresh and immediate in their impact on you, one can understand the envy and awe that surrounded the artist all his life. The Rokeby Venus by Velasquez made my head spin. No reproduction can do justice to the translucent skin of her pearly-pink body that we can see from the back, while her face is reflected in a small mirror held in front of her by an Eros. If I have ever been tempted to lick the paint off a canvas, it was then and there.
A room full of Rembrandts put me in an especially philosophical mood. In one of the two self-portraits there, we see him as a virile man in his mid thirties; the world is his oyster. Nearby, hangs the portrait of his beautiful mistress, Hendrickje Stoffels on whom he lavished his adoration after the death of his young wife, Saskia. And then you encounter another self-portrait, painted toward the end of his life, where Rembrandt, though only 63 years old, has aged beyond his years. The warm darkness envelops the glowing face of the artist whose eyes convey, along with disillusionment, a lot of empathy, understanding and pity for poor us, who still have to go through all this.
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