David Lister: Bring back the art blockbusters

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The Independent Online

The director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny, is at it again. After taking up his post at the start of last year, he decreed that the age of the blockbuster was over. There was no point, he said then, showing people images they already knew. "The responsibility of a major gallery is to show people something they haven't seen before."

I paraphrased this at the time as: "From now on we will show only fairly popular artists, and we will, of course, have a much smaller number of visitors, get less publicity and be less talked about." Besides, blockbusters attract a new audience into a gallery, an audience which is tempted by the buzz around an exhibition, and might just wander off to see, and be entranced by, paintings in the permanent collection.

But I was prepared to eat my words when Dr Penny's first show, the little-known Italian Divisionists, who were painting at the same time as the French Impressionists, proved a real eye-opener. The paintings were not only technically stunning, but also many of them were highly political and poignant with their portrayals of poverty in 19th-century Italy. So Dr Penny's "there's more to life than blockbusters" argument seemed to have some validity.

This week he returned to his anti-blockbuster theme in an interview with this paper. But he went worryingly further. He espoused the idea of major exhibitions featuring just one painting. "I think there are a great many works of art that could benefit from isolation," he said. "I would like to stage one-or two-picture exhibitions in the future, although that is not what I would want to do exclusively."

He went on to say that with religious works there was "something comical" about having a line-up of the Virgin and Child. "It's not a beauty competition. These religious works of art would gain from being shown in isolation, because it re-emphasises their sacred purpose," he declared.

Now that is what one politely calls a curious logic. If isolation re-emphasises the sacred purpose of religious painting, then why not have just one religious painting in the whole National gallery? It could become the most sacred art gallery on earth. Dr Penny clearly has to find a way of staging exhibitions in the recession, when loans from abroad are going to be harder to fund. But single-painting exhibitions are going to leave the consumers, visitors to the National Gallery, feeling short-changed.

Even if charges for these single-picture shows go down to as little as £1, which Dr Penny advocates, visitors are still paying to see a painting that in some cases will be normally on show elsewhere in the same building for free. And has Dr Penny considered the discomfort of such shows? Good exhibitions tend to be crowded, and it can be hard to get near the paintings, even when there are 30 or 40 of them. Imagine 100 people or more crowding round one Titian or one Picasso. What is the value in that?

I suspect that Dr Penny will sooner or later return to the idea of blockbusters. In the meantime, I suggest he either mounts more illuminating and informative shows like the Divisionists, or takes a range of paintings from elsewhere in the gallery to hang together, perhaps to show how one artist has influenced another.

But it is essential that any show involving paintings already in the gallery should be free of charge. That is the morally correct way to treat the gallery's visitors.

Scratched by the cat's claws

The death of Eartha Kitt over the holiday period stirred a memory for me – not of her singing or acting, but of the most nightmarish interview I have ever conducted. I met the diva on one of her last tours of Britain in the 1990s when she was appearing at the Hackney Empire. The interview was in her dressing room, and I entered to find her on her knees, engaged in embroidering a giant quilt, which covered the entire floor. She continued working on this for several minutes, refusing to acknowledge my presence.

When at last she did deign to look up, I asked her something about her early years. She muttered that her father had abused her. A stickler for precision, I asked her exactly what she meant by this. She lifted her face, stuck it into mine, and yelled at point blank range: "I mean he beat the hell outta me."

She then returned to her embroidery and our bonding was over before it had really begun. Sadly, I never got to see her on stage. Offstage was dramatic enough.

It's still top of the pops

It was good to see Top of the Pops back on New Year's Eve and Christmas Day. These were the first comebacks for the show, once a weekly staple on the BBC, since it was killed off two years ago. The two specials have prompted a number of affectionate reminiscences in the press, and a front-page article in the industry magazine Music Week urging a full-scale return for the show, as record companies feel it is once more a way to reach teenagers with the new releases. But I think all of that misses the main virtue of Top of the Pops.

It was the only music show that united the generations. It was the one pop programme that had the whole family in front of the TV together, even if half the family was wide-eyed and the other half completely puzzled. That's something that simply doesn't happen with MTV. And that's why the BBC should bring it back, and why it was daft to scrap it in the first place.