Contemporary art Museums United Kingdom

National Gallery director is not amused by the misuse of Trafalgar Square

Fourth Plinth commission should be replaced by “two well-matched contemporary works”

Elmgreen and Dragset's Powerless Structures Fig. 101, 2012, installed on the Fourth Plinth

Nicholas Penny, the director of the National Gallery in London, has criticised the contemporary works that temporarily occupy the empty plinth in front of the gallery in Trafalgar Square as “antagonistic to the architectural character of the square”, turning the plinth into “a stage, which can be used ironically, farcically [and] inappropriately”.

In an interview with The Art Newspaper, Penny expressed his “grave concerns” about the square in general, particularly the “tawdry tents and hoardings for advertising” that regularly “conceal” the gallery from view.

Penny outlined his alternative ideas for the square, proposing that the two northern plinths in front of the gallery should have two “well-matched contemporary works” and that Francis Chantrey’s equestrian statue of George IV be placed on a pedestal within the steps leading up to the gallery from the square.

For an interview with Nicholas Penny, see the November print edition of The Art Newspaper

Nicholas Penny
More from The Art Newspaper


1 Nov 12
22:18 CET


How tiresome this obsession with jarring the senses presented as artistic originality, a temper tantrum of amateurs to disrupt appreciation of the masters who have come before us. Meaningless expression set before timeless eloquence.

1 Nov 12
22:18 CET


Mr Penny seems to think that that the Square is the front lawn of his gallery. I may not like the majority of works on the 5th plinth and I may not like some of the temporary installations but they are part of the democratic life of the city. One cannot support freedom of expression and then become snotty at the types of freedom expressed there. Although I don't share his aversion to irony or farce, I agree with Mr Penny on the quality of art displayed on the fourth plinth. However I feel this is a product of a wider tendency in contemporary art and the way this specific commissioning process is drawn to it rather than it being a problem with allowing new work to be displayed in that setting. Mr Penny should choose the next work for the plinth. This is a site after all in which aesthetic arguments can be made and debate can be aired in a very concrete way.

31 Oct 12
20:59 CET


I'm in the camp of Robert Hughes criticism of current art works like these. They are only a reflection of academic thinking that have never lifted a brush and been part of the creativity process. It is funded by people who have no idea about art and reflect their kitsch rich bad taste. In other words it has no meaning now and reflects nothing in society now.

30 Oct 12
13:30 CET


Dr Penny's suggestion deserves support, but probably will not get much. A fundamental problem is the conflict inherent in Trafalgar Square, which is both a fine neoclassical composition (albeit there are better neoclassical buildings than the National Gallery) and the venue for anarchic events, with which the joke erections now favoured for the fourth plinth are more in tune.

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