Dr Marta de Zuniga in Conversation with Dr Gabriele Finaldi
MdZ: The National Gallery is world famous for its extraordinary exhibitions e.g. Gauguin Portraits (2019), Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist (2022), Raphael (2022), but also spectacular shows of masters who unjustly fell into oblivion, like Artemisia Gentileschi (2020) or Sorolla. Spanish Master of Light (2019). How do you define the role of iconic institutions like the National Gallery in presenting, discussing and even redefining the canon of European heritage?
GF: The National Gallery is a historically-rooted museum and it reflects the interests and priorities of those who formed it: collectors, artists, curators, art historians and yes, politicians, too. What it does do is tell a coherent story of the development of Western European painting from the 13th to the 19th centuries and it seeks to tell that story with works which are representative and the best of their type. It also focuses on the recognized great masters: Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Velázquez, Rubens, Turner and so on, and shows their work in depth.
But the European canon is never fully defined or complete and nor is the story we tell the only story. During the last two decades say, we have become interested in representing parts of the rich European painting tradition not previously included in the collection, through purchases and also through temporary exhibitions: Scandinavian and Swiss paintings for example, have entered the Gallery’s collection, and exhibitions have been held on Russian, Polish, and Austrian painters, as well as artists from further afield working in the European tradition for example in the US and in Australia. We put on an exhibition in 2016 of Australia’s Impressionists which was absolutely fascinating. You mention Artemisia Gentileschi whose Self-portrait we recently bought. She is one of only about 20 women artists represented in the Gallery. Among other things, the acquisition drew attention to whole aspects of the European story that we don’t tell, or tell in a very limited way.
MdZ: In your forward to the Conversations with God: Jan Matejko’s Copernicus catalogue (2021) you wrote: ‘This is the first time a major work by a Polish artist has been exhibited in Trafalgar Square. It is surprising perhaps to realise that there are entire and important strands of European painting that remain unrepresented in the collection of the National Gallery and special displays like this one serve to open up a broader understanding of the rich European artistic tradition of which we are the heirs.’ Could you say a couple of words about choosing Matejko’s Conversations with God to broaden the understanding of Polish art?
GF: Matejko is a major artist who enjoyed an international reputation in his lifetime, exhibiting and receiving honours in Austria, Germany and France. One of his most important paintings is in the Vatican Museums. He is not, however, represented in any public collection in Britain and his name is largely unknown here. The narratives of his paintings are undeniably part of our shared European history and his style as a painter is deeply indebted to the established great masters in the National Gallery. Copernicus, the celebrated astronomer who features in the painting Matejko titled Conversations with God, acted as an ‘introducer’ for Matejko in this country. A very famous Pole from the sixteenth century introducing another from the nineteenth. The painting belongs to the Jagiellonian University in Kraków and it had never been lent before. This was a truly exceptional gesture of generosity to the UK.
MdZ: The exhibition opened last year directly after lockdown and was extended due to popular demand. Were you pleased with its outcome and resonance?
Yes, I was happy. I wanted the special display to do three things: first, to bring Matejko into the current conversation on how we think about what European art and culture are; second, to introduce his work to our British and international audiences; and third, I wanted to reach out to the large Polish community in this country and invite them in to the Gallery to see the picture in real life (relatively few people get to see the Copernicus painting in Kraków) and to witness the high regard we hold Matejko in.
MdZ: Copernicus was followed by Young Poland at the William Morris Gallery and this year’s monumental upcoming exhibition of Magdalena Abakanowicz at Tate Modern; and there are plans in place for a Stanisław Wyspiański showcase display. Would you agree with Waldemar Januszczak that Polish art is slowly beginning to speak? And if so, what do you think is specific or original about its voice?
GF: I very much hope that the interest that these events have generated is consolidated and built upon. In my view, the role of Poland in European history and in defining European identity is both underestimated and poorly understood here. Polish artists seem to take it as a given that their work needs to speak to the complexities of history, the struggle for survival, the dignity of tradition, community and faith, and also the need to interact with those who are different.
MdZ: You’ve travelled to Poland on various occasions, visited many places and seen some of the biggest museum collections. Is there something that particularly caught your attention? Who are your favourite Polish artists?
I feel that my understanding of Polish art has only just begun, and I am keen to know more. In my recent visits I have been particularly struck by the scale and ambition of the medieval altarpieces in churches and in the National Museum in Warsaw, and also by that group of late nineteenth-century artists who spoke with such a distinctive voice, at a time when Poland as a state did not even exist, several of whom were actually pupils of Matejko. I refer to the multi-talented Wyspiański, the brilliantly original Malczewski, and the unsettling Józef Mehoffer. I have met several Polish curators and museum directors and we have established an excellent rapport.
MdZ: You play the piano yourself and your interests extend far beyond the visual arts. Is there anything else you enjoy about Polish culture?
GF: Well, anyone who aspires to play the piano feels a great awe for Chopin. My grandmother who was Polish bought me the scores of several of his works edited by Paderewski. I wish I had time to play more and more skill to play them better. I enjoy Polish food, of course, particularly the variety of soups, and I love Wódka Wyborowa. It runs down the throat beautifully and doesn’t give you a headache!
Dr Gabriele Finaldi has been Director of the National Gallery in London since August 2015. Dr Finaldi was previously Deputy Director for Collections and Research at the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, a position he took up in 2002. Prior to his role at the Prado, he was a curator at the National Gallery between 1992 and 2002 where he was responsible for the later Italian paintings and the Spanish collection. Born in London in 1965, Gabriele Finaldi studied art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art where he completed his doctorate in 1995 on the 17th-century Spanish painter who worked in Italy, Jusepe de Ribera. He has curated exhibitions in Britain, Spain, Italy, and Belgium and he has written catalogues and scholarly articles on Velázquez and Zurbarán, on Italian Baroque painting, on religious iconography, and on Picasso.
Dr Marta de Zuniga is Director of the Polish Cultural Institute in London. She studied in Warsaw, Munich, Moscow and London and lectured at the Department of Journalism and Political Science at University of Warsaw. During her five years as Director of the PCI, Marta’s work has focussed on developing partnerships and projects that highlight close cultural links between Poland and the UK.