I realized that I forgot to discuss at any length my trip to various art museums in London. So, here is an account of my foray into the wider world of art—according to Britain.
The National Gallery looks out onto Trafalgar Square (find a history of the building here). The building itself is massive and houses thousands of paintings in room after room. The group that I went with found themselves lost in the maze of interconnected rooms. Sure, the collections are divided by period, but when one was distracted by William Turner or Titian, one room seemingly spilled out into the next. Disoriented and confused, it often took several minutes before we could find our way out of the labyrinth.
I should note that we only saw about twenty, maybe thirty, percent of the museum. We were warned that you could spend hours and even days on end in the museum but never truly heeded the warning.
Tired and ragged, we trekked on to the National Portrait Gallery. I should pause for a moment, for I went into this museum with low expectations. I never expected this museum to house any works of art but the typical “woman-seated-staring-at-a-diagonal” type of portrait. Or a bust of an obscure member of Parliament from the 18th century. I did not want to see this, to be honest, because I prefer art with sunlit scenery, some shock value, or images that did not focus solely on human features. I imagined myself walking mindlessly through halls lined with hundreds of identical portraits.
The National Portrait Gallery had all of that, but I’ve never been so wrong about a museum. I found paintings, photographs, busts and other, more abstract, media used to trace the human features of celebrities, average people, and, yes, even obscure members of Parliament. But even the people I did not recognize were immortalized by outstanding and, in many cases, awe-inspiring portraits and sculptures. Take, for instance, one of the paintings submitted to the 2009 BP Portrait Award. They were just incredible (here’s one example). This museum gracefully balanced the shocking and the more tame, the popularized and the relatively obscure. It’s all I ask for in a museum, and something rarely seen in art museums I have seen in the past.
This brings me to the next art museum I visited – the Tate Modern. Again, I think a pause is in order. Having only one course surveying the history of art since the Renaissance, I cannot declare myself all-knowing with regard to art. By the same token, I can appreciate all art. Especially when its definition is psychologically and visually questioned and, in some cases, shattered. I appreciate modern art for this reason; it tacks on an imminent and bold question mark next to the word “art,” and thereby forces us to question the painting/photograph/slideshow/etc. before us. “I could (never) do this” is often heard at these exhibits. As an art history professor explained to me during the course, these people (the Rothkos, Koons, and McCarthys) of the world) DID do it. And that is why it is art. Their expressions of limitless passion and angst and joy spill out into these exhibits, begging for a smiling or a wincing, almost riotous, audience.
The Tate Modern at night. Disturbingly brooding? Or pleasantly shocking?
Although I have studied art prior to visiting these museums, I looked for a distinctly “English” way of displaying art. Their art included famous works Americans can only view on posters or through a search on the Internet. Moving beyond that initial shock of standing before works including Turner’s “Rain, Steam and Speed”, you can look around and see throngs of art-hungry visitors to the museum. Look closer, and you hear French, Italian, and other languages. Crowds of people from across Europe and, more specifically, England fill the labyrinthine halls. Surely not everyone in London is an art connoisseur, but there’s certainly much diversity to be seen.
Whether you’re revolted or relaxed by the work, at least you had a reaction. Art is universal, it seems, whether you’re in America looking through great art in a book or you’re the very room containing that work.
If you are interested in some light reading, I suggest an article by Jack Handey in the New Yorker a few years ago. It’s pretty funny and mocks some of the more criticized aspects of modern art.
While going through the British Museum, the National Gallery and the Tate Modern I noticed the lack of British art and artifacts represented throughout these museums. I learned in my Museum Studies class that even major museums in America there are this lack of American artwork in them. Of course this is mainly because America is such a young country and we are beginning to establish our place in the art world just like other older countries have done. Even so, why is Great Britain still under represented, even within their own country?
I began to observe in every major museum in London that I’ve visited to so far this lack of British art. At the National Gallery there were only a few rooms (about 3) dedicated to the country’s artists. For being the “National Gallery” it seemed to be dominated quite a lot by Italian and French artwork. By viewing the layout of the gallery, it is easy to notice the complete lack of British art. It is also noticeable that it is not even the focal point of the museum, but the rooms displaying the artwork are pushed off to the side.
The British Museum also did not live up to its name. Great Britain only had about 4 parts of the entire “British” Museum showing British artifacts, mostly from the Medieval and Roman time periods. The majority of the museum displayed their stolen “acquisitions” from other parts of the world. And still even in this museum Great Britain was not the focal point in the least, for what is one of the first places you see when you walk in but the stolen Egyptian artifacts.
The Tate Modern also did not display many British artists. The gallery seemed to be dominated by American, French and all other countries other than Great Britain. Even America had a much larger place in this museum because of their prominence and prestige amongst the modern and post-modern art world. If you do a quick browse of this museum’s layout, it is easy to see hardly any British artists.
Why I believe there is a general lack of British art and artifacts is because most museums in a large city are meant to show off the prominence and power of that country. In the British Museum, Britain is still shown as a world power and it proudly displays the “booty” they have collected from their conquests of these other countries. Even in the new modern and post-modern art museum, the Tate, these same ideas still play through, just less pronounced than the other two. Museums are still viewed, even in the 21st century, as places of national pride and places to show off your conquests and the “treasures” to the rest of the world.
Tags: Alli · Museums
August 26th, 2009 · 1 Comment
After a morning class discussion on Ethnic London, I headed with some friends to Trafalgar Square to spend the afternoon in the National Gallery. As an artist and art lover, visiting the National Gallery has been on my high priority list. Not only is it a very large museum, but the collection spans over several centuries. It includes work by some of my favorite artists, Jan Van Eyck and Botticelli, and it is nicely spread out over well organized and numbered rooms.
Tourist pose by the lion
As soon as I entered the museum, I knew there was no way I would finish it all in a day. I was overwhelmed just looking at the interior architecture! I picked up one of the museum’s detailed colored coordinated and numbered maps, decided on left, and entered paradise. Yes, I was one of those people who stood right up against the barrier, nearly put my face in the paint, and twisted my head into awkward angles so I could “see the quality of the paint.” Having just finished my Fundaments of (Oil) Painting class at Dickinson, I was completely engrossed and fascinated with the brightness and sharpness of the paint when the artists painted on wood.
I only made it through the 16th and some of the 17th century works, which tend to be of a more religious nature. So many paintings depicting the life and death of Christ, or the various Saints, reminds me not only of the political nature of those time periods, but also the importance of religion. So much of England’s history and beauty steams from the country’s religious roots. People flock to the churches of England as tourist attractions, forgetting that they were once places of worship. People stare at paintings of Christ, forgetting the meaning and significance tied to the image.
Hanging out by the National Gallery
While I hope at least most people appreciate these works for there aesthetic beauty, mastery of skill, and creative perspectives, I hope that every once and a while, we all think about the mindset of the artist. What is this a painting of? For whom and why? What does this image mean? I try to ask myself these questions with every work of art I look at, in hopes I will appreciate it a little more.
To view a slideshow of photos from my time at The National Gallery, Westminster Abbey, and the South Bank please click here.
Tags: Megan · Museums
St. Martin in the Fields
I’ll start by saying what a thrill it was to go to St. Martin
in the Fields today. As a classical music fan, I’ve long admired the recordings of Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the fields. 18 Handel_ Water Music Suite #1 In F Hopefully, that is the Air from the Water Music Suite #1 in F by Handel, recorded at St. Martin in the Fields. I enjoyed the trio today, but especially relished the chance to take in the space where the Academy plays.
On another note, I’ve enjoyed (despite being overwhelmed by) both the British Museum and the National Gallery in the last two days. Even though Henry and I only got to see the Egyptian statues before the British Museum closed yesterday, we were in awe of the sheer scope and grandeur of the place. We had a similar feeling at the National Gallery today.
This leads me to the chief irony of both of these museums, namely that neither is all that ostensibly British. The British museum has a section for nearly every part of the world, while the National Gallery is dependent mainly on work by mainland European artists. What makes these museums British then? I’ve been slowly coming to the conclusion that Britain (both in the empire era and even today) has thought itself something of an arbiter of all world culture. Our Burton reading yesterday mentioned that the visitors from India in the 19th century approved of the British Museum’s India section, all but saying one need not go to India but rather London to understand Indian culture. Similarly, today I saw French and Italian tourists in London today admiring Pissaro and Titian at the National Gallery.
This British “arbiter of all world culture” role, if it indeed does exist, is a very powerful role that is potentially also very problematic. Certainly it is convenient for a traveler or student to have all of this in one city. However, some time ago, I heard about a nation (I believe it was Egypt) demanding a few of its artifacts back from the British Museum. Besides being a tricky legal issue, I feel this says a lot about the power dynamic between Britain and the rest of the world which has come about both as a result of colonialism and the powerful role Britain has had in relation to most of the world since WWII. For some reason it just seems natural and unproblematic to us in the west that the Rosetta Stone should be permanently in London, because we perhaps have subconsciously come to believe that the British have a natural right to something with such value to civilization, without thinking critically about who actually created and contributed to that artifact.
Thoughts on this “arbiter” theory or what it could mean (presuming its reasonable)?
My first impression upon entering the National Gallery was skepticism that the art could possibly be any more beautiful than the building’s architecture. I’m not usually much of an art person (although I’m a HUGE Dalí fan), and I usually don’t spend much time in museums dedicated entirely to art. However, to my great surprise, I was abslutely fascinated by the thousands of paintings. Of course, I got to see paintings I thought I would only ever see in photos, such as Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and Monet’s Japanese Bridge. Additionally, I chose to make note of paintings I previously was unfamiliar with that caught my eye. Of these, my favorite was Louis-Léopold Boilly’s A Girl at a Window. The oil on canvas painting originally attracted me because it is painted to look like a framed still image; therefore, it is in black and white and rather unique. As I drew closer, I noticed the clarity of the details, especially those of the fish in the bowl next to the girl. The painting is so clear, it could easily be mistaken for a modern-day cartoon or CGI. Being a terrible artist myself, I never imagined a handcrafted painting could look so smooth and realistic.
While looking at the medieval collection of the Gallery, I noticed various paintings depicting the Biblical scene of St. Michael the Archangel defeating the Devil. Carlo Crivelli’s St. Michael (1476), Bartolomé Bermejo’s St. Michael Triumphant Over the Devil (1468), and Piero della Francesca’s St. Michael (1469) all portray St. Michael similarly. He appears as a rather young looking boy wearing medieval style armory. However, Francesca opts to give the archangel wings instead of a cape. The most noticeable difference to me, though, is in the way the artists chose to represent the Devil. Crivelli’s Devil resembles a lizard-like demon, whereas Barmejo’s Devil is smaller and much more cartoonish and almost comical when compared to the triumphant St. Michael. Francesca’s is once again different from the other two, as he portrays the Devil as a simple serpent in the corner of the painting, which focuses on the archangel instead. These paintings fascinated me because of their diversity. I always knew styles of art changed over time, but I never really considered the diversity that could exist between the contemporary artists of a time period. Seeing these three paintings that show the same subject painted within a few years of one another helped me to appreciate the different ways in which artists might imagine their subjects.
Tags: Museums · Sarah
On our way yo St. Martin in the Field we ran into an wonderful violinist in the Tube. Each of us in the group dropped some of our excess change into his violin case and went on our way. At that point we did not realize what was waiting for us at St Martin’s. After taking our seats the E.L.F. Trio began to play and all of us were completely blown away! I find it mind boggling that such an AMAZING concert could be free open to the public.
We then all headed over to the National Gallery. The National Gallery was also free, so we all got to see Rubens, Di Vinci, Turner (my favorite), Monet, and Van Gogh for FREE. The longer I am here the more I am impressed by the extent to which London embraces and supports the arts. There are free concerts everywhere, all the time, and extrordinary people simply playing in the street or in the Tube. I would move here in an instant, if givin the chance and lets face it the finances, simply for the arts.
Upon entering Saint-Martin-in-the-Fields, early this afternoon for the E.L.F. trio, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect from the concert and the church. I’ve been in a good number of European churches, and I admit that I’ve gotten a bit jaded on the church front. I wasn’t surprised by the decor of the church (Corinthian columns, gilded decoration, chandeliers, etc). It was quite typical of a church built in the mid-1700s. I was, however, quite enthralled by the window over the main altar of the church. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take a picture of it from the church, but it seemed to be purposely distorted into a display of modern art and it certainly made an interesting juxtaposition with the existing 18th century decor and architecture. (I was unable to find more information to tell if it is an original piece of the church or a more recent addition.)
The E.L.F. trio also managed to surprise me greatly! As much as I enjoyed it, I was notexpecting a 35 minute long tribute to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera! Anyone else have an overwhelming desire to listen to the Phantom soundtrack after that?
The National Gallery was probably the highlight of my day. Anyone who knows me really well can tell you that I love music and theatre, but I’m not one much for old paintings. We were told that when we go to the British Museum we should keep in mind how the different artefacts relate to Great Britain. Along those same lines in the National Gallery I couldn’t help but keep thinking about how the paintings managed to get to London. The ones that were by British artists or of Britain or by an artist from the Empire made sense, but how did they get such a large number of paintings from Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, etc.? What really shocked me were the 13th to 15th century paintings that used to be altarpieces in churches. There was one by Filippino Lippi, called The Virgin and Child with Saints Jerome and Dominic, from about1485 that was painted for San Pencrazio church in Florence. How did these pieces of art from the walls of churches manage to get to London? I just had a bit of an issue getting my head around the idea that so many of these fragile pieces of artwork were cut up and shipped to London museums from places that were outside of Britain’s sphere of influence.
The Virgin and Child with Saints Jerome and Dominic by Filippino Lippi - picture taken from the website of the National Gallery
As I said above, I am not one who is a big fan of looking at old paintings for hours on end, but I know the big names and can recognize my fair share of famous paintings. One of the things I appreciated and was in awe of most about the National Gallery was the sheer volume of paintings they had that I was familiar with. There was one room with twenty-one paintings on the walls and I counted nine by Raphael and two by Michelangelo. (I came to realize that you could tell where a really famous painting or artist’s work was when there was a massive group of people surrounding it and traffic stopped flowing.) The US has some really nice art museums, but the content of the National Gallery blew my mind.
The main thing I learned today is that art and music transcend all language barriers. I probably heard people speaking at least a dozen different languages when I was strolling around the National Gallery and sitting in Saint-Martin-in-the-Fields, but it didn’t matter because everyone can enjoy art and it is completely open to interpretation.