Goodbye white walls. I wonder what the architects Dixon Jones think of Bridget Riley’s addition to their pristine white walls in for the Annenberg Courtyard of the National Gallery in London as part of the East Wing masterplan, created over a decade ago by transforming an unloved external courtyard.
Riley’s mural, Messengers, shows that art and architecture can work closely together. In this high volumetric space, both the architecture and the art is highly geometric, with the architecture including a circular balcony feature which compliments Riley’s work. With the benefit of hindsight, it was perhaps a missed opportunity that the original proposals for the space did not include permanent art within the design, but then, perhaps at that time, the Gallery was not as forward thinking as it is today, gently treading on the toes of the Tate with the current exhibition by Scottish artist Barbara Rae and Riley’s work, which follows good examples of contemporary artists working in gallery public spaces such as at the Queen’s House in Greenwich and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, though those are more subtle and less bold than Riley’s work here.
The mural and its title ‘Messengers’ is said to have links to the paintings in the National Gallery, many of which have angels (Messengers of God), to the description John Constable used for clouds and to artists who manipulated colour such as George Seurat.
Riley’s installation at the National Gallery seems to be a natural development from the exhibition of her work of the years 2013 to 2017 which filled three floors of David Zwirner in spring 2018 and included large wall paintings that covered entire walls of the gallery, though she has painted site-specific murals as long ago as 1983 for the Royal Liverpool University Hospital, quite a contrast in scale from her early prints which at one time it was possible to buy for only a few hundred pounds. It also reflects the progression of gallery interior design. After the Second World War, the current vogue for gallery design was plain and discrete, often with hessian on the walls – very Scandinavian. Then, in the 1980′s, the plain interiors were stripped out and colour appeared and the galleries here and in the National Gallery of Scotland were restored back to historic colour schemes that complimented the paintings, often allowing a more flexible approach to daylight. Riley’s addition is almost a 21st century representation of the same trend.