Gabriele Finaldi says why London's National Gallery can’t just stop at 1900

Interview with the National Gallery's new director, who wants to "ramp up" the exhibition programme and rewrite deal between it and the Tate

by Martin Bailey  |  2 March 2016
Gabriele Finaldi says why London's National Gallery can’t just stop at 1900
Gabriele Finaldi also wants to develop the museum’s exhibition programme. Photo: The National Gallery, London
The National Gallery’s new director Gabriele Finaldi took charge six months ago. In a change from his predecessor, Nicholas Penny, Finaldi tells us that he wants to “ramp up” the exhibition programme. He also wants to address the London gallery’s longstanding need for a larger and more flexible space for special exhibitions. His most radical and fundamental idea is to extend the gallery’s remit, adding paintings from well into the 20th century, quite possibly up to the Second World War. Work by Picasso should be shown in the National Gallery, he believes. In 1996, when the last partnership agreement was signed with the Tate, the division between their collections was fixed at around 1900. Finaldi stresses that friendly discussions are now taking place with the Tate over possible changes.

London-born and Courtauld-trained, Finaldi worked, from 1992 to 2002, as the National Gallery’s curator of Later Italian and Spanish paintings. He then moved to the Prado in Madrid, where he was the deputy director of collections and research.

The Art Newspaper: What vision for the National Gallery did you put forward when you were interviewed by the trustees for the directorship?

Gabriele Finaldi: I wanted the gallery to continue to do what it does well, but there is an opportunity to think about where the gallery should head, such as over the scope of the collection. For instance, our 19th-century paintings are overwhelmingly French, but should we also be considering more Scandinavian, American, Spanish—and why not Eastern European art? We are also having an interesting discussion with Tate about how our collections “meet”.

The division with the Tate has been at around 1900. What are your thoughts on this?

As time moves on, 1900 seems increasingly remote and less related to how we think about periods of history and art history. In artistic terms, nothing very special happens in 1900, but the 1880s and 90s are a remarkably fertile period that push forward new modes of expression, with Cubism very soon afterwards. It is slightly frustrating to reach 1900 and then not go on.

The understanding we have with Tate is that we can move into the 20th century, although works of art that are more avant-garde or abstract are more the province of Tate. We could think of moving towards the Second World War and potentially collecting pictures from the 1930s, although this is something we would want to discuss with Tate.

Should works by Picasso be shown at the National Gallery?

We own one Picasso, a still-life Fruit Dish, Bottle and Violin of 1914, which is on long-term loan to Tate [and now temporarily on show at Tate Liverpool]. So we do not currently show Picasso. But he is an artist who straddles the end of the 19th century and went through a remarkable series of transformations to become the towering figure of the 20th century. So we should show him.

Picasso was always very interested in tradition, remaining a figurative artist. He measured himself against the great art of the past—breaking with tradition, but also seeing himself in that tradition. He wanted to take on each artist in turn and possess them: Velázquez, Delacroix, Courbet. Picasso always had a deep relationship with the kind of art represented in the National Gallery.

Let’s move on to how the collection is displayed. How many of the pictures are currently on show?

Fifty-five percent of our 2,357 paintings are on display, with another 4% on loan elsewh ere. Traditionally most of the pictures used to be on show, but this was never really the case in more recent times. We certainly need more space for the collection and there are some quite important works that are not on display. For instance, there are 15th- and 16th-century altarpieces that take up quite a lot of space, and we can show only a representative sample.

Where do you have space to expand?

Next year, in the lower level of the main building, we plan to get additional space by connecting the recently redisplayed reserve collection with the cruciform galleries with the Domenichino frescoes.

Further ahead, the space occupied by our library and archive could be adapted for displays. And in the longer term, the National Gallery owns St Vincent House, just behind the Sainsbury Wing. It currently provides some of our offices and facilities and the rest is leased out to tenants. It could be demolished and replaced with an extension to the gallery, probably with a larger and more flexible temporary exhibition space, but this would be some years away.

The collection has not been fundamentally redisplayed since the opening of the Sainsbury Wing in 1991. Do you have plans for a rehang?

The sequence of galleries is determined by several constraints. The Sainsbury Wing was designed for the early Renaissance, so the sequence has to start there. Some of the galleries in the main building do not have air conditioning, such as the Barry Rooms, so these are used for the later canvas paintings, which are less sensitive to environmental changes. But I do love the present sequence of galleries on the main floor, leading from Duccio to late Degas.

I would like to look at a bit more mixing of the collection. The way it is done now reflects traditional curatorial boundaries. We have 17th-century French paintings at one end of the building and Italian at the other, which sometimes makes it difficult to understand how these artists actually worked. For instance, Poussin is shown as a French artist, although he spent most of his career in Rome. What I am proposing is episodic encounters. Turner wanted us to hang his pictures next to Claude, and I can imagine [Gerrit van] Honthorst with Bernini or Rubens with Titian. Art history progresses, and the gallery should be alive and responsive to that.

What is your exhibition strategy? Your predecessor, Nicholas Penny, spoke out against blockbusters and argued that shows were taking up too much time and space.

I want to ramp up the exhibition programme. That is what museums should do—to draw in the public and introduce them to different ways of seeing the collection or aspects of painting they do not know. We haven’t yet announced it, but in December we will be holding an exhibition on Australia’s Impressionists in the Sunley Room. These paintings will be completely unknown to most visitors, so it will expand horizons.

Prince Charles has just become the gallery’s royal patron. How did his visit on 15 February go? And what will he do?

He was very warm, engaged and committed, and was very interested in our Delacroix show [until 22 May]. He will come to open the occasional exhibition and see the work we do in conservation and scientific research.

As gallery director, do you have a view on the UK’s referendum on Europe?

The National Gallery presents European art. If you want to reflect on where we fit into European history, this is a good place.

Royal patronage

Prince Charles, a trustee of the National Gallery from 1986 until 1993, became its first royal patron in February. The announcement was made as he visited the Delacroix exhibition (until 22 May) in the gallery’s Sainsbury Wing. No stranger to the Venturi and Scott Brown-designed extension, he was closely involved in its design. A decorative column on its façade proved contentious, we reported last year. The prince and some of his fellow trustees did not want it and the architects almost resigned over the matter, Denise Scott Brown told us.

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