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UK National Gallery offers slow-looking art lessons for lockdown | Art and design


Can you feel the wind in your face so fierce you can barely speak? Can you taste the rain on your tongue? Feel the sooty grit in your eyes? Hear the train’s piercing whistle? Glimpse the tiny hare?

The National Gallery is hoping viewers will experience one of its most popular paintings, Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway in a richer way when it releases its first slow looking tutorial as part of a new digital programme during the lockdown.

The five-minute film encourages people to clear their minds, to really look at what is in front of them and experience the painting as well as see it.

It stems from popular mindfulness art appreciation sessions at the gallery led by art historian Christina Bradstreet, part of the learning team.

“People often want to deeply connect with a painting,” she said. “But it’s often quite hard to settle in to it and just look. It might seem you’re looking but actually you’re thinking of what your boss just said to you, how annoyed you are by that tourist party, what you’re going to have for dinner.

“I usually try to get people to look quietly at a painting for a couple of minutes which is a really long time when you think the average [people look] is meant to be 16 seconds.”

In terms of the Turner, people might be missing out the sheer drama of the Great Western train travelling over the bridge through the wind and the rain, they might miss the hare, racing for its life, in the bottom right corner. Or the maidens dressed in white who might be dancing? Or are they waving like early trainspotters?

Bradstreet said the slow looking exercises helped people see unnoticed details in paintings they assumed they knew well.

“Sometimes people have an emotional response, it has reminded them of something in their lives. That can be really rewarding. Sometimes people can start to cry which, actually, can be really lovely.”

The slow looking video is part of a wider package of content announced by the gallery on Thursday to celebrate the creative possibilities of staying in and help mental wellbeing during the lockdown.

John Shevlin, senior content planner, said slow looking felt particularly pertinent to the times. “It does feel like people are looking for that moment of peace and calm, that moment of reflection. It is something we know people come to the gallery for already.”

The Turner session will, Shevlin hopes, be made available this weekend and is seen as a pilot. “We’ll see how successful that is, how people respond to it and then develop the content from there.”

It is a short film with a meditative commentary but people can, of course, scrutinise any National Gallery painting for as long as they want on the gallery’s website.

Other content includes curators giving talks on the gallery’s paintings from their own homes, starting with Francesca Whitlum-Cooper, associate curator of paintings 1600-1800, exploring five works celebrating domestic activities.

They include Vermeer’s “calm, cool, quiet world of 17th century Delft” in A Young woman standing at a Virginal; Jean-Etienne Liotard’s pastel work The Lavergne Family Breakfast; and Chardin’s The House of Cards.

A ‘make and create’ strand is aimed at families. For example make a jungle collage from stuff around the house inspired by Henri Rousseau’s hugely popular painting of a tiger in the undergrowth, Surprised!

National Gallery director Gabriele Finaldi said the programme was inspired by the legacy of Dame Myra Hess, the pianist who organised morale-boosting weekday concerts in the gallery when it was last closed during the second world war.

It is a very remarkable National Gallery story and we consider ourselves the heirs of Myra Hess’s spirit as we plan our activities while the gallery’s building is temporarily closed,” he said. “With this exciting new digital programme you will see that we are open all hours, with free art for everyone. So do join us as there is lots to discover. You bring the tea, we will bring the art.”

A guide to slow looking

Get yourself into the moment by perhaps staring at the wrinkles on your fingers or clapping your hands.

Now focus on a painting. Begin by making yourself aware of it in the context of the room you are in. How is the light falling on it? What shadows are being made by the frame?

Look silently for a couple of minutes. Is there a pattern to how you are looking? Is there one point that really hooks your attention? Where do you go from there?

Focus on certain shapes, lines and colours. Imagine your eyes are a pencil tracing the painting and do that at different speeds.

Imagine you are in the painting yourself. Feel the air, listen to sounds. If it’s a portrait imagine yourself as that person, move your posture in to their posture.

If you are doing this with another person start talking about your experience, the things you have seen.

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