14 December 2014
Stephen Portlock relays his experience of an audio described tour of the 'Giovanni Battista Moroni' exhibition, at the Royal Academy, London - one in a programme of ongoing accessible events at the gallery, designed to draw an audience of disabled visitors and disabled artists.
As far as I can recall, this was not the first audio described art exhibition that I have attended at the Royal Academy but it almost certainly was the earliest. Showing more enthusiasm and passion than is strictly decent for a Londoner at just after 9am on Monday morning, the guide Bridget explained to the ten or so blind or partially sighted attendees why Giovanni Battista Moroni ill-deserved his reputation during his lifetime as a poor man’s Titian.
Judging by the clear interest and by the questions that accompanied her presentation, her passion was broadly infectious.
The five paintings given elaborate descriptions by Bridget, of a knight, a rich woman, a small child, the Virgin Mary and a tailor at work, were distinguished by an honesty, which exemplified Moroni’s approach to his work. The clothes worn along with the adorning jewellery were deliberately chosen to highlight the wealth of the individuals being painted, and Moroni painted them in all their finery. Yet the same degree of perfection could not be said for the humans who wore them. And so a wealthy woman’s freckles are clearly visible as is her thoughtful expression.
Even the Virgin Mary is surprisingly un-elevated looking distinctly ordinary in unremarkable clothing. In other words, whereas Titian sought to elevate even the basest of man to the level of Gods, Moroni in many ways did the reverse.
Yet for someone like me the real question when attending this talk was how far Bridget’s description would bring the paintings to life. Generally the answer was that she did a good job, although some occasional confusion set in as for example where St Catherine fitted in when she was alluded to in the Madonna and child picture.
It was sometimes the incidental details described rather than the main event that yielded the most interesting stories during the morning. For example we discovered that the elegant staring knight so finely attired, subsequently died when falling down a well after a bout of particularly heavy drinking. St. Catherine did not die on the wheel with which she is associated in legend, but in fact was beheaded after the wheel in question broke.
After the exhibition and refreshments, attendees were introduced to the ‘tactile’ element of the morning, which consisted of an explanation of the painting processes involved and of the surfaces on which Moroni and his contemporaries worked.
The case could be made for arguing that some such information was not strictly relevant to an overview of an individual artists’ work, but it was fascinating and most welcome all the same. I half dreaded being invited to ‘have a go’ but thankfully we only had to grind the paints and not to do any painting ourselves!
Overall then a satisfying introduction to a neglected painter and a commendable attempt by the Royal Academy at creative inclusivity. The follow up is on the sexually charge work of pop artist Allen Jones and even without my decadent hat on I’m still looking forward to attending. Besides, it’s at a slightly more reasonable hour.
The Royal Academy run an ongoing programme of accessible, impairment-specific, events for disabled people, titled InTouch, InMotion, InPractice, InMind and InStudio. Please click on this link to go to the access page to make the most of your visit.