Tuesday, August 29, 2006

U.K. ART ROUNDUP. I spent a lot of my London time in museums, and the time was well spent. I am depressingly uneducated about the stuff, but I try to look and to see, and take what it gives me.

The National Portrait Gallery is fun -- what a great idea to put up pictures of people the Empire deemed important, and then watch 99% of them turn into Some Old Guy No One Remembers. With any luck it'll happen to Elton John in my lifetime. Good or bad, rich or poor, the subjects of masterpieces or of hackwork, all are equal now. I loved Paul Brasson's "Conservative Party Conference, Brighton 1982", with Margaret Thatcher rising as if to meet a threat and her husband shielding his eyes from the glare, and Joshua Reynolds' Laurence Sterne, looking like Harpo Marx in bard drag. And this year's BP Portrait Award entrants are a very good bunch. Some strive for New Artist ugliness, like "Poet Laureate" by Annemarie Busschers (Andrew Motion should ask for clarification -- it's the Dutch PL, with lots of enlarged pores), but this is just one flavor among many and very well done. I especially liked Patricia Rorie's "Black Beads," the enormous head of a young girl, with stiff hair and waxy pallor but a penetrating gaze, like a mannequin coming to life.

Like all big-city supermuseums, the British Museum and the National Gallery are purposefully overwhelming -- Britain brings the culture, motherfuckers! Of course, they take culture, too: The Elgin Marbles are still at the BM, but renamed "The Parthenon Sculptures" and endowed with teaching signage about Greece's claims on them -- another shocking example of Britain's capitulation to the Hellenofascists. Lots of dead Egyptians lying around -- and a dazzling living artist previously unknown to me, Avigdor Arikha. NatGal had a nice "Rebels and Martyrs" show about the romantic image of the artist, which starts with Sir Joshua ("Hero of the Establishment") looking smug and settled, followed by a bunch of nuts with berets, haunted expressions, and filthy ateliers. I loved Henry Wallis' dazzling "Chatterton" in beauteous death-sleep illuminated by grey morning light from garret windows, and was surprised to see documentary evidence that Rodin's "Balzac" is, under that sweeping robe, fondling himself. And of course there were plentiful galleries of Great Ones, pummeling you with genius. Before I saw Hogarth's "Marriage-a-la-Mode" here, I had not known (as I had not known about Daumier before I saw him in the Phillips Collection earlier this year) that he had done paintings as well as engravings and drawings. I wish revelations of my ignorance always came with such compensating pleasures.

The Tate Modern is another glorious monstrosity, an old power station with giant steel girders framing tons of open space. The galleries are well curated, and while I'd gorged overmuch on the Dada show in D.C. (and again at MOMA) to be in the mood for the Surrealism show, it was full of great hangings, like a streak of Balthus bracketed by Meredith Frampton. Two great Four Seasons, too: the Rothko paintings originally commissioned by that New York restaurant, shown in dim light as diners might have experienced them, like big rainy-fogged windows; and Cy Twombly's "Four Seasons," about the most majestic abstract expressionist paintings ever, balanced with an appropriately massive Beuys installation. These guys know what they're doing.

Also saw Damien Hirst's 40-foot-tall "Virgin Mother" outside the Royal Academy. Fucking hilarious.

The rest was all bitters and balti, but this is what sticks with me.

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