What does The National Gallery’s list tell us about our viewing habits?
The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, (1434) is the most viewed image on The National Gallery’s website
The National Gallery has released a list of the top twenty most viewed images from their website since lockdown began last March. After a year of interacting with art solely through our screens, what does this list tell us about how viewing habits have changed? Before the pandemic, the most memorable encounter between a National Gallery painting and a screen appeared in John Berger’s radical 1972 documentary Ways of Seeing. In the opening scene of the first episode, Berger uses a knife to cut out the face of Venus from what appeared to be the real Mars and Venus by Botticelli, one of The National Gallery’s most famous paintings. The painting currently sits at eleventh most viewed image on the new list.
The painting was of course a reproduction, but the viewers’ initial confusion at the presumed iconoclasm had made Berger’s point: in the age of mechanical reproduction the work of art had lost its aura. This was not a new idea, Walter Benjamin had written about it much earlier in the 1930s, but Berger was taking it further. Berger was interested in not only the relationship of an original to a reproduction, but also in the medium through which we view these reproductions. In his case: television.
Berger argued that these mediums are inseparable from the art itself, commenting in the first episode about Mars and Venus that “As you look at them now on your screen, your wallpaper is around them, your window is opposite them, your carpet is below them, at this same moment they are on many other screens surrounded by different objects, different colours, different sounds, you are seeing them in the context of your own life.”
Computer and phone screens are now the dominant medium: the coalescence of technology and vision becomes ever more apparent. Berger may have sliced the image, but via the internet we are now able to zoom in and out at our own pace, without being led by the camera’s gaze on live television. More than this, we can actively and instantly engage with the image autonomously by copying and repurposing it endlessly online, via social media and even memes. The meaning of the image is free from academia, the critic and now even the infrastructure of the museum. As viewers in the age of the internet, we can determine an image’s meaning entirely.
What does the present list of the top twenty images tell us about current modes of viewing? The two most viewed images are The Arnolfini Portrait (Jan van Eyck, 1434) and The Ambassadors (Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533). Dr Gabriele Finaldi, Director of The National Gallery, suggests these paintings are indicative of the current moment: “[Both] are indoor scenes with very dressed up people, and I am wondering whether they reflect our own experience of being enclosed in our homes during lockdown but yearning to go out and celebrate.”
The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger
Beyond emotional resonance, I think these images are significant for another reason. They are jewel-like, detailed scenes heavy with symbolism and iconography. The Arnolfini Portrait is one of the most pored-over paintings of art history: the artist’s signature and central mirror, reflecting what could be a tiny figure of the artist, have fascinated generations of thinkers. Equally mysterious are certain details of The Ambassadors: namely the distorted skull and easily missed crucifix carefully nestled in the top left corner, peeping out from behind the green curtain.
What do these things mean? Is it Van Eyck himself in the mirror, or are we confronted with an image of ourselves – the archetypal viewer – making us witnesses to this betrothal scene? Why is the skull in Holbein’s painting only visible from the bottom right hand corner? There are limits to interpretation, but clearly these images are activated by viewers: it is we who stand in front of Van Eyck’s mirror, and we who complete the image of the skull as we move round the painting. Technology allows viewers to explore these details and mysteries in much more clarity. Much has been made of the hyperdetailed zoom function on The National Gallery website, and these two images encourage such detective-based modes of viewing.
These two works typify a skilful application of oil paint which is able to conjure rich worlds of objects and their associations, and which leaves no evidence of its medium through visible brushstrokes. In terms of perspective they are relatively flat images, sending the objects in the foreground tumbling into the viewer’s space. Other paintings on the list such as Vermeer’s A Young Woman standing at a Virginal (1670-72) and Joseph Wright of Derby’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768) are comparable.
Rembrandt is a notable absence on the top twenty list, despite the many works owned and displayed by The National Gallery, including two much-loved self portraits. Rembrandt, unlike the artists discussed, revels in his chosen medium of oil paint. In his late and painterly work in room 22, Self-Portrait at Sixty-Three, 1669, he sparsely depicts the white band under his cap with quick, deliberate and visible brush strokes. As with The Arnolfini Portrait and The Ambassadors, this is a painting which is activated by the viewer, but in a very different way. When viewed in person the artwork has an embodied quality: the paint turns to flesh and what emerges is a breathing, vulnerable artist. This quality is lost online: zooming in simply exposes the cracked paint surface and throws off the evanescent and infinite subtlety of Rembrandt’s vision.
While there are some “painterly” works of art in the top twenty list, there is no doubt that viewing art online will continue to favour heavily detailed, finely painted works much more than the atmospheric and corporeal visions of Rembrandt. The auction house Sotheby’s recently reported an increased interest in the still-life genre, both on their own feed and social media more broadly, again evidencing the suitability of these images to the online sphere.
It is clear museums are heavily investing in their digital futures. The V&A has just launched a new digital platform, which allows users to access their 1.2 million treasures in a “more immersive experience” than before. The Natural History Museum has recently appointed Douglas Gurr as its director, an ex-global vice president of Amazon UK, who will oversee the museum’s move online. It is worth noting all his thirteen predecessors had come from science and curating.
The full list of 20 artworks is available to view online at NationalGallery.org.uk
Max Lunn is a journalist based in London