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Norman J. Olson, US
 

 

 

 

Art Essay: Traveling to London's National Gallery and the Tate…musing about art

Four Sketches from the England Trip

 

I am just back to Minnesota from a quick trip to London… last Friday, Mary and I were talking about places to go that had space available so we could use our employee passes… although there was lots of space to Europe, we could not get to either JFK or ATL, so had to go from MSP so, the only option wound up being London… well, London was okay because I love to go to the art museums there… had been to the National Gallery a couple years ago but had not been to the Tate for many years… my interest in the Tate is for their collection of Victorian painting, especially GF Watts and for the work of Romantic graphic artist and poet William Blake… which I had seen there like 40 years ago… they also have a great collection of the work of William Turner, who is a fine and interesting painter but not a personal favorite…

So, we found a cheap hotel at Hatton Cross which is one stop from Heathrow on the subway into the city… in fact, our room looked out on the old Concorde which is sitting there, I think in mothballs… the Concorde no longer flies anywhere does it??? but walking from the tube station to the hotel, a parade of jets including several huge British Airways 747s came roaring in about 300 feet above out heads… coming in, we speculated from the far corners of the old empire, New Delhi maybe or Hong Kong… looking for all the world like huge but very loud kites gliding in with the sky showing through the flaps and slats which are fully extended for landing… really a cool thing to see for people who like airplanes…

So, Saturday after we checked into the hotel about noon, we took the tube into central London… got off at Piccadilly Circus and walked toward the Thames… toward a column that I thought was Nelson’s column but which turned out to be another column about three blocks from Trafalgar Square… fortunately, while there were plenty of tourists around from all over the world, it was not nearly as crowded as it has been in the warmer months when we have visited Central London… and, as there are maps and guides for the tourists, it is easy to find one’s way around, so we got to Trafalgar in due course, after stopping so Mary could have a coffee… which she enjoyed at a sidewalk café while I sketched the passers by… the weather was very nice, in the upper 50s and low 60s during the day and bright and sunny… except for a bit of rain Monday morning…

So we found the National Gallery and visited all of my old favorite paintings there… it is not every day we get to see the work of Leonardo Da Vinci and although much of the National Gallery Madonna of the Rocks was probably painted by assistants, it is fun to speculate about what is by Leonardo’s own hand… I also guess that he used glazes of noncolorfast pigments for the flesh and for the greenery as well which I guess would have looked much prettier when the picture was new… and there is a large drawing there (called a “cartoon”) by Leonardo which is obviously all by the hand of the master and is very cool to see, spotlighted in a darkened room… I have always loved the two paintings attributed to Michelangelo which are also in the National Gallery… but, my all time favorite painting, a painting I have loved ever since I first saw it in a book years ago is the work called Venus Cupid Folly and Time by Renaissance Mannerist Bronzino… and of course there are many other rare and beautiful works including small pieces by Vermeer, Raphael, Titian… Velasquez’s so called Roceby Venus and Turner’s best paintings… The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to be Broken Up… a painting that so overcomes me that I had to walk away from it to keep from breaking down in a blubbering fit of crying right there in the art gallery… well, anyway, we had a lovely afternoon in the National Gallery… had a nice sandwich then took the subway back to Hatton Cross for the night…

The next morning, Sunday, we set off for the Tate Britton… and wound up walking around the museum in a great circle looking for a sandwich or something for breakfast… we finally found a shop that was open and had sandwiches which we bought and ate at a small iron fenced park… it was very nice in the residential area of Milbank, just behind the Tate, sitting in the sun on a bench eating our sandwiches… the trees were bare of leaves, but no less beautiful for that and aside from a few pensioners, the pigeons and an occasional jogger, we had the park to ourselves… the grass was green, unlike Minnesota where there is still snow and ice covering the tan colored grass… Mary helped some seemingly gay German tourists by taking their picture for them so they could be together in the photo… for which they thanked her profusely…

Then it was on to the Tate… I had heard that the Tate’s long term director Nick Serota, a relentless advocate of conceptual art, had pretty much destroyed the museum for those of us not into the stupid art of the Twentieth Century and that turned out to be true, as only one small engraving by William Blake was on display and a small handful of Victorian pieces while most of the Museum was taken up by A Walk through the Twentieth Century (the art of the Twentieth Century that is)… a walk I have taken once in real life and have no interest in taking again… the Victorian pieces that were out however, were stunning… especially Millais’s Ophelia and three small paintings by William Holman Hunt… also, there was a lovely painting of a woman by Rossetti… the early Pre-Raphaelite paintings by Millais show what an amazing painter he was in his early years before he turned his energies toward portraits and soap advertisements… especially the Ophelia in which a giddy surreal effect is created by the intensity of the details of growing things painted with an ultra-photographic technique… and a symbolist intent… and although there is a large painting of Ellen Terry, there is no sign of any of the major paintings by Watts which the Tate owns… there also was a room of Turner paintings, mostly seascapes… which are very picturesque and a handful of narrative, High Victorian paintings such as Derby Day by William Powell Firth which I love to look at… but most of the museum is now devoted to pushing academic contemporary art… and not surprisingly, walking out I saw an advertisement for an upcoming show by Damien Hirst, champion of the pickled-cow-in-a-jar school of contemporary art so much beloved of Nick Serota…

Leaving the Tate about 3:30, we walked along the Thames to the Houses of Parliament and had a talk about the development of the contemporary art aesthetic… I think that the art of the 19th Century is best seen as an almost total reaction to the invention and perfection of photography in the 19th Century… speaking in broad and very general terms… pre 19th Century artists had, no matter what school or movement they belonged to, as a bedrock element of their aesthetic the two dimensional imitation of what a person sees… it was said that the mirror was a perfect painting… and although not all painters believed that, they all believed that depicting what was seen was what art was based on…

The invention of the camera put a monkey wrench in that and very soon the artists realized that here was a machine that could “fix” the seen on a photo reactive surface and make a perfect two dimensional record of the seen with the touch of a button… this rattled the artists...  they basically had three different reactions to it in the three basic art movements of the 19th Century… the first reaction was the academic reaction which was to officially ignore the camera… pretend that it did not exist and that only the artist could draw a two dimensional representation of the scene… this the High Victorian masters did and especially the French Academics such as Bougereau and Gerome… although it is probably true that both of these artists like many academics actually used photographs in their paintings to serve the function that would have been served previous to the camera by preparatory sketches and drawings… so, this reaction pretended to ignore the camera but often used the new technology under the table… there still are some of these flat earth society type movements such as Richard Lack’s Classical Realism in Minnesota… in the late 20th Century…

The second reaction to photography was the French reaction in the latter quarter of the 19th Century in which artists focused on color, which the camera was still not very good at and at fleeting impressions of the seen created by painting in very loose, or seemingly loose fashion what the artist thinks he or she sees in a brief glance which was another thing the camera in those days was not very good at… this style of work lead to a delight in the process of painting which led directly to one of the two ways of doing art allowed in the mainstream 20th Century aesthetic… i. e. abstract expressionism and its devolvement…

The third way of reacting to photography was the Pre-Raphaelite way in which the artist tried to out detail the camera… while this way of making art resulted in some amazing art, it was ultimately mostly doomed as camera technology was perfected in the 19th Century and became increasingly good at color into the 20th Century… this camera reaction lives on in the 20th Century in the various “hyper realist” schools that persisted through most of the 20th Century… (there is a show up of 20th Century hyper-realist art at the Walker Art Center in Mpls. as we speak)…

In the early years of the 20th Century, the arts in Europe and the US went through an aesthetic revolution in which the underlying aesthetic philosophy… the philosophy of what is and is not art… finally changed as a result of the invention of the camera and the three artistic reactions to that invention mentioned above… the absolute bedrock of this aesthetic is that art cannot, must not be based on images of the seen… because images of the seen are the provenance not of the artist but of the photographer… so, if the contemporary artist is going to use images, he or she must not take the image seriously, must make it clear that the artist is somehow fooling around with the image rather than presenting it as an image in itself… so what is done to the image is more important than the actual image…

This new aesthetic was given its current form when Marcel Duchamp exhibited a urinal in an art gallery or tried to do that in 1917… the resultant brouhaha was a delight to the subversive Duchamp and much to his amusement, laid out a path of art that had nothing to do with drawing and painting and which can all broadly be called “conceptual art” … when I was in art school in the 1960s, this new aesthetic had solidified and being an aesthetic philosophy which had but small impact on human beings outside the arts world, became increasingly insular and academic… and had the broad tenants that one could do “conceptual art” which consisted of doing in an art gallery, pretty much anything except hanging a show of traditional drawings and paintings… and that activity or object would be called “art” and given serious intellectual attention and context by imbeciles like Nick Serota… the other thing the aesthetic does allow is painting as painting was reintroduced to the world in the 1950s with abstract expressionism… a painting style from which all images were excised… in later schools and movements, images were allowed back into academic art but only if the images were not taken seriously… as I mentioned earlier in this essay, what the artist has done to the image in contemporary art has to be more important than the image itself… for example pop art would be okay because the images are trivial and silly so it is the artists having chosen and manipulated the image that matters not the image itself… or hyperrealism in which the viewer always says something like “it looks so real”… rather than responding to the created image as its own content and context… which is to say the image must not be involved in the artistic act of making a communication on some deep subconscious level… from person to person… but is rather to be encountered in the world as an object…

The contemporary aesthetic requires the viewer to come to the piece as he or she would come to view non art… without expecting or receiving communication from the artist but with the experience being entirely between the viewer and the object viewed… which of course begs the question which I have asked elsewhere of why one would need to go into a gallery to have that experience when the human being is so surrounded by opportunities to have an interesting or compelling visual experience outside the gallery… and so often the experience in the Museum of Modern Art, looking at the art object is far less interesting than the experience of looking at the stuff one sees before entering the Museum and after leaving the Museum… the artist may try to manipulate this object to make certain impacts on the viewer, but that is very different from trying to make a serious image that has a serious communication to make from person to person and is why so much of contemporary art tends to be so shallow and to make such stupid and trite points… when it makes a point at all…

I would like the art of the 20th Century to all just go away… but, of course, I am a victim of my own time as much as Rossetti was of his… and like him, I have chosen to ignore the most recent century and go back to take what I like from an older aesthetic to build a new aesthetic philosophy today… in my case, one in which the image is taken seriously… because people love images and human beings are natural image makers and communicators… my art is not like the art of the 20th Century because it does precisely that, takes the image seriously… that is a philosophical difference that even the dumb shits in the Museums of Contemporary Art and the modern art academies pick up on even though they do not have a clue as to why they don’t like my art… there is a reason… the art violates the prime tenant of the Contemporary aesthetic in that it takes the images seriously….

Well, I was a bit disappointed to have not gotten to see any of the William Blake works and I would have loved to have had a look at some of the Victorian art that really interests me, but my view is the minority one and room after room of 20th Century crap is what makes the Modern Art Museum relevant in the highly rarified world of contemporary art in which Nick Serota is a god…

After these musings, we arrived at Westminster Abby… it was Sunday so the church was closed to tourists, but there was an organ recital at 5 pm… since we got there about 4, we went to St. James Park and watched the birds for an hour and then went to the organ recital which was very beautiful… the vast gothic arches and stone work providing an amazing acoustic environment for the huge pipe organ…

Then we walked on to Trafalgar Square and had dinner for about ten dollars at a German restaurant that specialized in spicy sausages in crisp buns… by the time we got back to Hatton Cross, our feet were as tired as the rest of us and so we were glad to see a bed… we had planned on taking a motor coach via ferry to Amsterdam as we have to pay a fee of $129 to fly out of London but only $55 to fly out of Amsterdam, but when we got to Victoria Coach Station, we found that the tickets were about double what they would have been if we had bought them in advance… so we scrapped the Amsterdam part of the trip and just flew back out of London Monday at about two pm…

It was a great flight… I watched two movies, sneaking peeks out the window every few minutes… but it was very cloudy until about half way through the eight hour flight when all of a sudden over southern Greenland, the clouds cleared… I got to see the amazing snow and ice mountains of southern Greenland… what a treat to see those jagged rocky peeks covered except at the very summit with crisp whorls of blindingly white snow… from almost 40,000 feet, the amazing desolation of these vast ranges of snow and ice mountains stretching to the horizon is very moving for me… and a thing of immense beauty… then on over the broken pack ice of the North Atlantic, to the hills and snowfields of northern Newfoundland… to fly over the very southernmost bay of Hudson Bay… which was covered with broken pack ice… the chiseled outline of the shore against the blistering white of the ice… amazing… then south over Duluth and home… lots of time in the air… lots of time to think about art and this vast and beautiful planet… lots of time to feel my great good fortune to be able to see and do the things I see and do…

 

 

a visit to London

 

in a few hours I went
from seascapes
painted at the dawn of the
industrial era,
to seeing the
sea covered with fractured
ice from forty thousand feet…

in these things, perhaps, the intricate touch of somebody’s god

yet, there was traffic
everywhere
and the buzz of languages
foreign to my
ears… I almost saw
organ notes
bouncing from
the ribs of the
Gothic vault
to the floor
and back again
in dizzy
waves
of
sound…

 

 

Four Sketches from the England Trip

 

 

 

 

 

Art Essay: Traveling to London's National Gallery and the Tate…
musing about art

Little Black Book: Art Gallery

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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