Love, National Gallery, London

Love in some of its infinite guises is celebrated in an exhibition that delivers few amorous surprises

Love seems a theme more suitable to a poetry anthology than an art exhibition, so it's fitting that the first item on show is Tracey Emin's embroidered, partly illegible love poem, sprinkled with appliqué roses: "Those Who Suffer Love (I'm OK Now)". Heartfelt, skew-whiff, hand-made to the point of being rubbishy, it's disarming and directly tackles the theme. Round the corner, things get a bit more complicated.

Vermeer's Young Woman standing at a Virginal features a painting of Cupid holding up a playing card, a glyph of fidelity. The chair in front of the woman is empty; she looks expectantly at the viewer. It's a painting of suggestive absence. In Raphael's Madonna of the Pinks, Mary gazes down fondly, the sturdy Christ child looking back with an altogether more complicated expression of foreboding. Next to Mary is a sinuous Cranach Venus, stark naked save for her glorious pom-pom hat, ignoring poor bee-stung Cupid. The label informs us that this painting was in the personal collection of Adolf Hitler.

The facing wall is all about gesture: Joseph Wright of Derby shows us a married couple, she on horseback, he with his hand flung negligently over her knee as if to say, "I own all this." Stanley Spencer's ugly lovers have outworn beauty and youth but caress each other tenderly; Hockney's male lovers clumsily grab against the wall of a urinal, their teeth clashing. Their bodies, in fudgy pinks and browns, resemble the love affair of a Fab lolly and a strawberry Mivvi.

Crepuscular blues, and arum lilies among the red roses, give Marc Chagall's Bouquet with Flying Lovers a melancholy air and with good reason: the painter leans out of a window to embrace his dead wife, flying through the night, softly enveloped by her white bridal veil. Holman Hunt's virtuosic Isabella and the Pot of Basil is another portrait of a recently dead wife, but it's about as moving as an Arts and Crafts furnishing catalogue. The lustreware pot in which Isabella has buried her lover's head is particularly desirable. Further along, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Astarte Syriaca is fit for the altar of a satanic chapel; his Middle Eastern goddess of love is a menacing and muscular presence, like a shot-putter with PMT. Facing her is Frederick Sandys' golden Medea, an icon of jealousy as she curses the thread that will kill her rival for Jason.

Possibly the weirdest picture here is Murillo's John the Baptist: a fluffy lamb places its hoof on the forearm of a winsome, ringletted boy who awkwardly makes his upward-pointing gesture with the other hand as he clutches the beast. Its sentimental message ("Your Saviour wuvs you!") is horribly undercut by its painterly brilliance. Elsewhere, Hendrick ter Brugghen's Jacob Reproaching Laban for Giving Him Leah in Place of Rachel is a sprightly and attractive rendering of a typically sordid Old Testament episode.

In Tiepolo's brilliant oil sketch, Cate Blanchett as Cleopatra holds up the pearl she will dissolve in wine and drink as Anthony looks on in admiration. The stallion barely restrained by its handler in the lower left corner makes the point explicit, as does the cat licking oyster shells on the floor of Jan Steen's superficially innocent Interior with a Man Offering an Oyster to a Woman. The most intriguing pictures here make up their own story rather than illustrate scenes from the Bible or mythology: Amrit Singh's jewel-bright girl getting ready to meet her beloved beneath a portrait of a henna-tattooed Madonna, or Goya's A Picnic, a strange and sinister rural scene involving drunkenness, male swagger and a curiously blank-faced doll.

But to complete the experience, take in Bronzino's Allegory with Venus and Cupid, surely the most complex, sensuous and cynical image of love ever painted.

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?