Fruits of the Spirit is a digital exhibition that enables anyone to have an art gallery in their pocket!
Devised by the National Gallery and museums throughout the UK, Fruits of the Spirit: Art from the Heart pairs nine iconic works from the National Gallery’s collection with contemporary works from nine partner institutions including The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum. The exhibition is inspired by Saint Paul’s description of themes including love, joy, and peace in the Christian Bible but is meaningful for all faiths and none. The paired paintings explore love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control all considered attributes to build and maintain community in the face of disagreement.
The exhibition is co-curated by the National Gallery’s 2021–22 Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Fellow Revd Dr Ayla Lepine and Senior Research Curator Dr Susanna Avery-Quash, who leads the Gallery's Art and Religion research strand. Creating a digital exhibition, it was possible for them to bring together paintings from nine institutions across the UK into a single accessible gallery space that while digital is utterly real. It is a calm environment in which artworks are displayed under a beautiful central oculus. The digital gallery is easy to navigate and it is so realistic that there are light tracks, labels and even digital benches to sit on. It includes paintings by Jan Van Eyck, Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Rembrandt van Rijn, Marguerite Gerard, Circle of Louis Finson, Lizzie Jones, Ben Hartley, Frank Auerbach, JMW Turner, Titian, Ernst Neuschul, Eugène Delacroix, Winifred Knights, Ron Stenberg, Orazio Gentileschi, Andrea Soldi and Thomas Gainsborough. All are sources of wonder and calm, available free at the click of a link!
The McManus’s much loved Two Auld Wifies, Dundee by Ron Stenberg is paired with one of the most significant paintings in art history – the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck under the theme of generosity. The pairing provides new ways to see a familiar masterpiece. Both paintings have a secret to tell, both show real people in a real space, in both the artist is an eye witness to an exchange between family members. While Dundee’s painting can share its secret – the National Gallery’s Arnolfini Portrait remains one of art history’s greatest riddles.
The title, Two Auld Wifies, Dundee appears to tell us all we need to know about this very ordinary couple sitting on a bench. They chat, quietly absorbed in one another, in an everyday kind of place. But nothing here is as it seems in this quietly enigmatic painting. So, what is the story? Artist Ron Stenberg spotted the couple gossiping on a bench in front of Boots the Chemist in Dundee. Stenberg observed, ‘I’ve been looking at people all my life. I like characters and thought they’d make a grand painting. These two characters were sitting there completely oblivious to everyone else. I sketched them a couple of times. They never even saw me’. You can see why Stenberg was captivated. He worked up his sketches into a finished oil painting, adding its descriptive title indicating that it was a portrait of two ordinary Dundee housewives. After it was donated to the museum, the two ‘women’ were actually identified as a mother and son. Janet is shown gazing fondly at her beloved son Alexander. He was a long-term resident Dundee’s Royal Liff Hospital and met up with his mum every Friday. Janet’s life has a remarkable final twist. This modest housewife left a substantial estate to establish a Trust to benefit the people of Dundee. It continues to make grants supporting a variety of charitable work in the city.
The Arnolfini’s story has mystified historians for generations described as an image of pregnancy, a marriage contract, a betrothal, a memorial to love. What kind of greeting is being offered, does Van Eyck’s signature indicate friendship between artist and sitters? Portraiture is linked to remembrance and viewed as a mediation on generosity the Arnolfini portrait can be seen as celebrating the generous gift of being alive, living life to the full and wishing to be remembered after life comes to an end.
The McManus are exploring the two paintings with Tayside Healthcare Arts Trust. THAT Projects Co-ordinator and artist Chris Kelly has also contributed to the free digital catalogue of essays. He movingly describes the generosity and transformative power of art to build confidence and re-establish identity in the face of challenging health. He is one of over twenty authors, including curators, artists and a Nurse-in-Residence, a care-experienced young person and social justice charities, explore the importance of the exhibition’s themes, from love and family life to self-control in relation to climate change. These essays aim to bring voices not normally heard in gallery catalogues to the fore. Creating links between paintings within and beyond the National Gallery and fostering interactions through different perspectives in communities and cultures encourage new ways of seeing and more open ways of engaging with one another.
The digital exhibition is permanent but is accompanied by a series of events held at the National Gallery and at partner locations across Britain until 30 April 2023.
Revd Dr Ayla Lepine, 2021–22 Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery, says: ’It is a true joy to bring together diverse works of art from around the UK into new dialogues with the National Gallery’s stellar collection. I am proud to have worked alongside some of the UK’s most exciting public collections to explore new connections between sacred art and our world today, creating a collaborative, free, and dynamic exhibition for everyone to enjoy. I hope that projects like these, supported by the National Gallery’s Ahmanson programme in art and religion, can encourage us all to open our museum collections to the widest possible audiences, and to build communities that are sources of love, peace, and kindness for all.’
Lawrence Chiles, Head of Digital at the National Gallery, says: ‘We continue to explore the possibilities now open to us to create digital exhibition experiences. The Fruits of the Spirit virtual exhibition has allowed us to bring together paintings from institutions from across the UK that would have been difficult to do physically, and in a more dynamic way than a straightforward website. Online visitors can get a better sense of scale and relationship between the works and hopefully continue the thoughtful dialogue that the overall project has inspired.'
Anna Robertson, Fine and Applied Art Manager at The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum says: ‘We are pleased that an artwork from Dundee's Fine Art Collection, which has been acknowledged for its national importance for a number of years, has been selected to be a part of this prestigious UK-wide project. This is a wonderful opportunity to share art digitally to a wider audience and we are thrilled to be a part of this initiative. We thank the National Gallery for our inclusion and Tayside Healthcare Arts Trust for their engaging contribution.’
For more information, visit nationalgallery.org.uk
Fruits of the Spirit: Art from the Heart is supported by Howard and Roberta Ahmanson
Digital activity at the National Gallery is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies Digital Accelerator