With the job of curating modern and contemporary art that relates and interprets the National Gallery’s historic collection, Daniel Herrmann tells Overseas how abstract artist Bridget Riley’s newest work was created for the gallery’s Annenberg Court. 

How do you come to work at the National Gallery?

I've always been keen on the arts and I've always enjoyed looking at artworks as records of the history of ideas. I studied Art History at the University of Hamburg, and throughout my time there, I was always working in exhibitions and in art institutions. I was lucky to work in Berlin as an intern right after university, and then followed that with a role at the National Galleries of Scotland. At first, I had responsibility for the so-called ‘Paolozzi Gift’, which was the donation of British artist’s Eduardo Paolozzi works to the gallery. I then later had the responsibility for works on paper after 1880 and got to work with a lot of lovely colleagues in Scotland, spending six years in Edinburgh. 

After that, I moved to the Whitechapel Gallery here in London, working there for seven years, and having the great fortune of teaching and working with young emerging curators, where we could really think through the historic approaches of artists and how to display that and to make it accessible for a public that really wants to learn something new about art. 

At the Whitechapel, a few of the exhibitions I worked on were retrospectives of British artist Gillian Wearing, who was recently awarded an OBE, I was lucky to work with Laure Provost in the year she was awarded the Turner Prize. It was my interest in exhibitions that bridged the historic and the contemporary that then allowed me to finally land here at the National Gallery, where I have the title of Curator of Special Projects. My remit is to relate contemporary and modern art to our historic collection. The widest possible remit!

Is that part of what attracted you? 

Absolutely. It's a wonderful opportunity. The National Gallery is a treasure trove of objects, of knowledge, of people and of visitors. For me to be able to build a new programme of exhibiting modern and contemporary work in the context of this historic collection is a real treat. My job is to rebuild and restructure our entire programme of modern and contemporary art.

The National Gallery has always worked with living artists since its inception in 1824, when we were housed in a private home on the Mall. Ever since we have worked with living artists, either by buying pictures from them directly or also artists who have left us their work in their will, most famously JMW Turner.

In the early years the gallery was open two days a week for practising artists to come into the gallery with their easels where they would copy paintings, really critically look at the collection and make new works that were inspired by what they saw. That is something that I hope we will be able to translate into the 21st century, most recently by working with artist Bridget Riley.

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How did the project with Bridget Riley come about?

This has been several years in the making, well before my time here. There was a very strong desire to continue the story of painting well beyond where our collection stops. When commissioning something new in spaces like this, it must be an artist of stature, who has an unassailable quality and contribution to the history of art. Bridget Riley is exactly that. She is one of the most important artists in the world and she has revolutionised the way art is thought about, talked about, looked at.

Combine that with her long-standing history of working with the National Gallery and It's a completely natural fit. She is a trustee of the gallery and was pivotal in giving our Sainsbury Wing, the 1980s extension, the right direction, and always fighting for the voice of artists and art in the context of museum institutions. Back when she was still in education she started copying Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) as part of her application to Goldsmiths. She also studied Georges Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières at the gallery.

That approach to differentiate the perception of landscape and the world through colour and individual optical effects is what Bridget Reilly then took forward into an approach which was later labelled Op art (short for optical art) in the 1960s, which influenced an entire generation of abstract art in Britain. She is one of the major figures of abstraction in Europe. 

We are extremely fortunate to work with her, she debuted a new work here called Messengers on 17 January. A permanent installation in the Annenberg Court, it is a composition of coloured discs covering 10x20m, inspired by her longstanding observation of the National Gallery's historic collection. The title is inspired by John Constable's writings about the clouds, and his interest in meteorology, as well as the notion of clouds as messengers of the weather, but also messengers being the traditional role of the angels, which feature so strongly in our paintings here in the collection. Another link between the historic and the contemporary.

Practically speaking, discussions have been ongoing for three or four years. The artist, in discussion with the curator, starts to come up with ideas, developed through models and drawings, through spatial planning. We are looking for the right forum for an artwork like this. It is painted directly on to the wall, and we're extremely lucky that we have the Annenberg Court in the building, which is not just a central space within the National Gallery physically, but also conceptually. It's where all our education events begin, where all our tours begin. So for us to be able to frame a visit to the National Gallery in a space that begins with the 21st century, is a particular treat. 

When work was reaching its final stages in January, there were 15 days of painting undertaken by a team of eight artists from Bridget's studio. It also involved extensive scaffolding to install the work while the room was still accessible to the public. Lots of planning, lots of logistics, lots of architectural understanding of the room. We needed to get the scaffolders in, but they can only work overnight, but the painting has to be done during daylight because that is how the work is going to be exhibited. You can't cut corners and you want the end result to be the best in the world. I think that's what we got. 

Bridget Reilly's work is very much about how our eyes operate and how we can develop new ways of looking. That's also something the Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla was also very interested in, but curiously under-exhibited and little-known in Britain. So, we're showing his work in the Sainsbury Wing from 18 March. He has these beautiful exteriors and genre scenes of Spanish cities and plazas being illuminated by gorgeous compositions of light that are absolutely striking. To have that in dialogue with Reilly will be fascinating.

At the same time, we're also going to have an exhibition by Sean Scully, who is a 20th century artist that also works with the landscape of light, who was also inspired by our collections, notably Turner's Evening Star, which is the stepping stone from which he developed his exhibition 'Sea Star'.

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How do you make these choices of who to work with and who to exhibit?

As curators at the National Gallery, we only want to show the best, most interesting and most relevant works of art and artists. When it comes to doing for modern and contemporary art, it is my responsibility to make selections, make displays and exhibitions available that are on a par with the quality of the collection, as well as complementing the collection in a way that makes it more than just the sum of its parts. 

We are currently restructuring our entire modern and contemporary programme, we have a very exciting future ahead of us. We're going to do more with modern, we're going to do it more prominently, and I hope it will excite a lot of our visitors. Namely three different things, the first is exhibitions and displays, the second is commissions, and the third is residencies.

For the first, exhibitions and displays, every three years the National Gallery has committed to a large-scale exhibition about modern and contemporary art in its Sainsbury Wing, which will sit alongside smaller displays. We are very lucky here at the National Gallery that we are able to experiment and do something that's a bit daring. We really want to continue that spirit of allowing artists to use the collection as inspiration to make new work. In the end, that's what these commissions, the second strand of programming, is trying to epitomise.

Every five years, we really want to work with one of the masters of today, to think about what the boundaries of an art institution are, and how the collection can inspire the making of new work that pushes these boundaries further. Bridget Riley's work is hopefully doing that is a fabulous and beautiful and extremely astute way.

That leaves the third strand of programming that we're working on at the moment, which is residencies. From 2019 onwards, we're excited to be offering artist residences to three types of artists. On the one hand we will have the National Gallery Fellowship, which is aimed at having the gallery work together with non-London institutional partner.

We'll have a National Gallery Artist-in-Residence. We're the only national gallery that I know of that has a studio on site, so we want to continue this tradition of artists making work inspired by the gallery. So we're giving the keys to the studio to an artist, who will also benefit from a London-living stipend and childcare, because we want artists from all over the world, no matter in what stage of life they are in. This will also result in an exhibition and a catalogue, and the acquisition of a work for a partner collection, as the National Gallery doesn't collect modern and contemporary art. We exhibit it, but by partnering with a non-London organisation, we can contribute to another collection's legacy.

The third one is going to be the digital residency. The idea is that modern and contemporary art provide a different view on the old masters, a prism through which we can look at historic art with a different view. We want to provide that different view both to the six million visitors we get here on Trafalgar Square, but also the 16 million visitors that we get each year online. We want to foster the making of new art on this online space. 

It's a major commitment to modern and contemporary art, we're proud of that. 

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