Save “Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap”? Sorry, but no!

Purchasing this oil painting now is beyond cynical.

pontormo-boyIn “This painting is a masterpiece of love and war – Britain must break the bank to keep it” The Guardian (14 October 2016), Jonathan Jones writes:

“The National Gallery has only got until 22 October to buy Jacopo Pontormo’s Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap (1530), a masterpiece of Florentine mannerism that is currently subject to a government export ban. It has already been sold to a US collector and tax has been paid on it, so the gallery has to match the £30m price – and the deadline is rapidly approaching. With a £19m government grant already awarded.”

The National Gallery must find, i.e. a donor or donors with nothing better to do must stump up, the missing £11 million. Why? Jones writes:

“Why is it so important to keep this particular painting in Britain? Perhaps because it is not just a beautiful portrait but a moving document of politics and history. For this is a picture of a young idealist: a relic of revolution.”

pontormo-halberdierPontormo (1494-1557) was a Florentine painter who broke away from High Renaissance classicism to create a more personal, expressive style that is sometimes called early Mannerism. Few visitors to an art gallery could identify a painting by this neglected master, although between 1989 and 2002, his “Portrait of a Halberdier” (hanging in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles) held the distinction of being the world’s most expensive painting by an Old Master.

Jones recalls the historical circumstances behind the painting when in 1529 the army of Charles V set out to subdue Florence. Pinned down by artillery fire from Michelangelo’s gun fort on San Miniato, the imperial army settled in for a siege, and – in a case of Florence expects every man to do his duty – the militant youth of Florence defended the city while food became scarcer and scarcer. “That is the heroic moment this portrait preserves.”

All well and good and a reminder that ordinary people are always caught up and suffer terribly in the wars of others. But let’s take a step back and take a broader view.

The National Gallery is not exactly short of a painting or two. At a time of increasing austerity, with the disaster of the Brexit vote having plunged the economy into crisis (which it will struggle to emerge from for at least a decade), at a time when the UK has one of the worst healthcare systems in the developed world, at a time when refugees in Europe are denied basic amenities, at a time when children are being maimed and killed in the horrendous and unforgivable war in Syria, the UK government has given away £19 million of tax payers’ money and the nation’s great and good are now being invited to fork out a further £11 million.

£30 million may be just a drop in the ocean to some, but at this moment in history and given everything that is happening in Britain and beyond, it would be an obscenity to spend it on this or any other painting.


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