Sooty Deposits

Head down to Victoria tube station and, slightly to my surprise, manage to speedily and successfully steer my way through all the complex coagulation of intersecting and overlapping roads and pedestrian pathways and get on to Buckingham Palace Road, en route to the Palace. No, Her Majesty has not requested my attendance at an audience to proffer advise on how to deal with her strange family intrigues nor help her navigate a path through the broader constitutional matters of state that are currently distracting her from walking the corgis and betting on the gee-gees. Although, of course, should she want any confidential help she only has to send an email and I’d be right over. No, in fact, the real reason for wanting to pay a visit to this august address is to call into her personal showroom, the Queen’s Gallery, where she’s decided to put on a show to mark the the quincentenary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci. The commemorative exhibition being a display of some of her collection of the great Renaissance man’s drawings covering the full range of his various interests across the arts of imagination and the sciences of record, investigation, speculation and invention.

But before reaching the Gallery I pause to take in some refridgerated refreshment in the form of a can of carbonated sugary confection bought from one of the souvenir shops along the way. And while gulping down this frothing fructose fluid I happen to gaze up and across the street where, just above the Palace Mews buildings, I spot a rather impressive ornamental artwork encased within the entablatured entrance. A hunky heroic type is grabbing hold of a couple of horses in what looks to me like a re-enactment of Hercules performing one of his labours – the prelude to cleaning out the Augean Stables perhaps.

Anyway, having supped my syrupy sustenance I continue on my way until arriving at the Gallery where I can see that there’s a great long queue extending out of the building and onto the pavement. The thought of having to join this shambling throng and then waiting an age to get into the Gallery is tedious enough but knowing that this dreary dispiriting inconvenience is certain to presage a dissatisfying Gallery visit where slow-moving crocodile-line crowds shuffle along blocking my view – well, that’s just too grim to contemplate. I guess that I’ll just have to wait for some other Leonardo anniversary and try again then. In the meantime I turn on my heels but, instead of retracing my steps back to Victoria, I head off to the next nearest tube station – that of St James’s Park. And at least this will allow me to continue with last weeks’ blogging format of taking an ad hoc look at some of the other arty entertainments of the capital that appear outside the gallery walls and museum floors, being freely displayed as public sculptures or as the decorative attachments that ornament the exteriors of some of the capital’s older architectural attractions. The point being that this particular rather stylish art-deco-ish underground station with its overground complex of offices is embellished with works from two of the greatest Modernist sculptors working in this country at the start of the last century: Jacob Epstein and Eric Gill (whose team of stone carvers, incidentally, also included Henry Moore).

Sadly, it has to be said that neither the works here by Epstein nor Gill are really first rate examples of what either artist was capable of producing, not that the situation is helped by the fact that all the pieces are heavily discoloured and stained with sooty deposits and currently in need of a good brush and scrub up. The best work is probably Epstein‘s pieta that’s sited above what was once one of the main entrances to the building (although it now looks to be permanently closed and somewhat redundant) and it’s certainly more thoughtfully modelled than its ugly twin sited round the corner, which looks to be like some decidedly more clunky and crudely modelled pagan father and son combination. As for the four Gill‘s, way up somewhere around the seventh floor, these horizontal figures personifying wind or some other elemental force of natural vigour – I can’t believe that it’s just me and my own diminishing eyesight that makes it so hard to pick out the details of these curious cyphers and make sense of their symbolic personalities. There are better examples of al fresco works by both artists elsewhere on show in the city and at some point I’ll endeavour to make a dedicated blog to point them out but, for now, I’m going to get back on the tube and re-emerge further along the District Line at Blackfriars. And here’s a station that was completely rebuilt and refurbished quite recently and, while not as sturdy and attractive as the brick and marble edifices and interfaces of St James’s, is, nevertheless, not utterly unattractive in its Modernistic combination of light and airy glass and steel.

Across the road from the station is Unilever House which, like St James’s station, was also built in the 1920s but shows a more rigorous Neo-Classical interpretation of the Art Deco style that was evidently favoured at the time. And here the main decoration comes in the form of a massive equicidal horse that’s stuck on a balcony half way up the building and being held back by a pair of classical figures grasping on to the reins on either side of its flanks. Incidentally, right round the other side of the building the scene is repeated, except that here the would-be Samaritan restrainers are female. On reflection, I suppose my initial interpretation of the artistic scene, whereby the brave men and women are trying to hold back the horses from jumping off the building, may be not quite correct and that perhaps the actual artistic idea is more to show an inspirational allegorical representation of the beneficial power and force of industry – such scenes being once thought to provide a recurrent encouraging daily moral boost to the workforce as they enter their place of work. I’m not sure how successful that would be these days but I suppose it was thought to be worth a try, a hundred years ago.

Turning to face the other way, looking across Blackfriars Bridge, there’s a charming bronze figurine of Aphrodite at the Well stuck on a no longer functioning water fountain, and a rather more grandly imposing statue of Queen Victoria stood on a granite plinth and erected to mark the occasion when she opened the Bridge back in 1869. These days, however, even the most imperious of traditional statues are somewhat shrunk by their surroundings, not just the incessant noisy ground level traffic that swirls around them, but also the backdrop of the glittering megalithic glass and steel office buildings that almost literally overshadow them. It’s a change of circumstance that I ponder as I traverse the Thames looking up and down river at the shivering, shimmering waves and all the cluttered mix of ancient and modern architectural constructions that extends infinitely outward in all directions.

Dawdling across the Bridge, I savour the riverine view before finally arriving at the ugly brick monster of Tate Modern. And again, a bit like last week, I’ve arrived with no particular plan or itinerary but just my usual open-minded attitude of seeking out stuff to look at – to re-engage with old artistic acquaintances and be enlightened by being introduced to new works of novelty and flair. Well, that’s always my vague hope when taking a look at items from the permanent collection here, as opposed to my usual specific visits to see the specially organised temporary shows that I more frequently blog about. Except, in fact, I’ve done this quite a few times before over the years – had a general wander around the four large suites of rooms where a relatively small selected segment of the Tate‘s main holdings are chopped up and then redistributed in what seems to me to be a fairly random sequencing of various subject matter and styles. And I confess that I usually get so irritated by this crass curatorial style of display that I tend to give up going round the galleries very quickly and exit grumbling, harrumphing and feeling hugely dispirited.

When Tate Modern opened nearly twenty years ago, its original director Nicholas Serota decided to overturn the traditional chronological hang that modern art galleries throughout the world had copied from New York’s Museum of Modern Art and stuck with for the previous 70-odd years. His dreadful new idea was to replace the clarity and logic of that arrangement with spurious thematic arrangements that juxtapose works from different countries, styles and periods in a hodge podge of soupy Post-Modernistic fashionability. With Serota finally ending his reign a couple of years ago, the new director, Maria Balshaw, had the chance to recorrect this appalling curatorial mistake and rehang the galleries in a sensible fashion based on grouping items by dint of their temporal and geographical origin and giving greatest prominence to those works deemed of greatest importance by the consensual agreement that has arisen over time (albeit acknowledging that this supposed canon is also inevitably subject to the changing fortunes of fashion and so may also change and evolve). Alas, as my current cursory ramble through the galleries of the section entitled Artist and Society confirms, the sad Serota style remains unchanged which makes a walk though the galleries a disconcerting chore rather than either an enjoyable visual refreshment for the gallery-goer with a bit of background knowledge, or a useful educative experience for the uninitiated novitiate who wished to learn more.

Continually banging up against a succession of second division works from unfamiliar names is tiresome and especially hard work when the links between the works seem so tenuous. But the whole experience becomes truly irksome when the occasional important artwork from an internationally renowned artist instead of being highlighted and treated with the respect it deserves, just ends up being awkwardly sandwiched between much lesser works and shoe-horned into the generally disordered thread. In my eyes, everything is diminished and I’m not sure there’s much point in my bothering to note specific examples of the problem since it would just mean naming lists of artists that no-one would have heard of and then describing their attempts with reference to the absent works of the more established artists which they tend to be imitating. I suppose it wouldn’t be so bad if the accumulation of all these lesser paintings and sculptures added up to making some wider, more general theoretical point but I’m not sure that the curators are even really bothering to try to achieve that aim.

So, the Artist and Society journey starts with Marwan Rechmaoui‘s model of a building in Beirut and Mitch Epstein‘s photograph of a Coal Plant in Ohio (see above) then moves on to large display of abstract art from Santiago (in which is hidden a great Kandinsky) and David Goldblatt‘s documentary shots of South Africa before leading into rooms devoted to famous works by Josef Beuys and unfamous works by Ellen Gallagher, and then on to a mixed display including video from Turkey, sculpture from Mexico and a collaged painting by the Australian Gordon Bennett (see below). At which point I can’t help muttering the name of the hapless artist to myself a couple of times as an excruciatingly appropriate start to the grumble and harrumph that then accompanies my dispirited walk out of the gallery.

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