London Art Museums

It is slightly sad for me that my time in London was so rushed; there are always so many more places I would like to visit than I had time for, but I applaud myself that I got to the three major art museums: The Victoria and Albert, the Tate Modern, and The National Gallery (oh yeah, and the County Hall Gallery for the Dalí exhibit, but I already mentioned that).

The Victoria and Albert Museum was my first serious expedition as it was terribly close to my hotel. It was exciting to see renovation and expansion, but damnably annoying that its jewelry collection was put away while a stunning new display is being prepared (and will be open in May, just a few weeks away!). It was not hard then to suffice through the stunning hall of silversmithing; rows and rows of tankards and teapots, samovars and spoons, or plates to pomanders. It made me wistful for my days of calloused hands and the methodical percussion of the hammers striking that softened, matte lunar metal.

The end of the gleaming hall of perfected silver where giant, life-sized lions as well as some excellent samples of newly-designed, modern work. But it was classical pieces showcasing the masterful skills of raising, chasing, repoussé, and engraving which inspired me. Besides the illustrious metalwork, the museum boasts many additional joys including a colorful, ceramic stairwell, a massive collection of historic plaster cast reproductions of classical architectural bits and statues, and a smattering of modern works. Well, the smattering was minuscule, but I was specifically taken by an installation piece by Camelia Parker; several dozen flattened, musical instruments suspended horizontally in the open hole situated between two floors of the museum. I have been so taken that I found this additional shot online, but also learned she is the artist responsible for Heart of Darkness, hanging in the DeYoung in San Francisco. Beside the Chihuly glass hanging in the entranceway, it was very enjoyable to be able to view down upon a craftsman, working on a piece which is supposed to be part of the new display of the museum’s Medieval and Renaissance collection.

The Tate Modern is a museum I was specifically told to investigate by a number of people. It took a bit of work to get there only because although I had been experiencing nothing but heavy London drizzle, that particular morning it was a torrential downpour. Architecturally, the building doesn’t speak much for itself and assumes the demeanor of a large, refurbished warehouse. However the entrance, with its long, sloping descent, begins to reveal its first installed treasure, a surprisingly temporary installation by Doris Salcedo, a giant crack in the floor. I was surprised to learn it was a temporary installation and it will apparently be replaced after April 6th. The crack is very reminiscent of the crack in the entranceway of the DeYoung in San Francisco (by Andrew Goldsworthy) except that this crack was significantly larger and Goldsworthy’s traverses through various hunks of rock which are strategically placed around the DeYoung’s courtyard.

The Tate is impressive in being seven stories tall, however the top two stories are administrative and culinary (a restaurant and bar). What was slightly annoying is that the main floor entrance has escalators which lead to the THIRD floor, bypassing the second. I only learned this when I attempted to enter the Duchamp/Man Ray/Picabia exhibit — for which a ticket was required. Oh yeah, British museums are free except for the occasional special exhibit. So after wandering around the third and fourth floors, I had to find a lift to the second (very crowded lifts with all the baby carriages). There is another interesting factor I noticed; the preponderance of families. It was really quite a joy to see crowds at a museum as many American ones I have been to seem sparsely populated.

The Duchamp/Man Ray/Picabia exhibit was very extensive, including the famous Duchamp fountain, but I was more intrigued with a retrospective by Juan Muñoz, specifically a room filled with 100 grey figures entitled Many Times (1999). Apparently the artist stumbled on a ceramic bust of an Asian head and reproduced atop bodies gathered in various states of discussion or groups. The oddity lied in the fact that the smiling, jovial face changed in respect to how the head was twisted, either looking towards or away from a neighboring partner. The lack of color and the quantity of the figures produced a disarming, ethereal sensation which is haunting me still.

The National Gallery - Located adjacent to Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery has what is arguably one of the best selection of Western European paintings in one, elegant, old-world building bedecked with mosaic floors, vaulted ceilings, and Roman architectural elements in its columns and cornices. It was easy to get lost in the displays which were appropriately sequestered by century.

An interesting debate at the moment is the status of the Fourth Plinth, built in 1841 for an equestrian statue which — for some reason — does not exist, it has been used for revolving installations and is now a subject of debate for a permanent installation. There is a quick overview here, but much debate exists in the printed and online media about a potential permanent installation. It seems they have narrowed it down to four contenders which will be decided in the next few months. I grabbed a shot of the current installation, the shot with the yellow acrylic sculpture.

The major occurrence at the National Gallery was an unexpected Stendahl moment. Surprisingly, after seeing a great deal of art at all four galleries, it was in an Impressionist room which contained Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Renoir’s At The Theater, as well as works by Pisarro, Manet, et al — and there it was, Claude Monet’s Houses of Parliament, Sunset (1902). When I approached it, I was completely overcome as tears began streaming down my face. I know he painted several versions, at sunset and sunrise, but somehow I was seeing angst in the broad, swirling brush strokes in the sky, contrasting with the horizontal, conflicting brush strokes mirrored in the Thames below. It was the pink and the purple and violent temper of the clouds, but I could not stop the tears at the beauty I saw.

Thinking it might have been just “an emotional moment,” I walked away and wandered the gallery for another 45 minutes to an hour, even sitting in on a school lecture in front of large Italian altarpiece of Seraphim, Cherubim and Adoring Angels. (Remember when schools brought kids to galleries and exposed them to art? My first trip was to what is now the Getty Villa when I was eight or nine years old and I still remember it). Regardless, after some time and space, I went back into the Impressionist area to see if the crowds had subsided around the Van Gogh and if a different Monet might affect me (his Water Lilies never have, for example). But there it was again and again the emotion welled up as I started to sob uncontrollably. And I still have no idea why, but that piece has impassioned me…

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