Thursday, 22 November 2012

Don’t Leave London Without It

London: Without, that is, seeing the American Express-sponsored “Rembrandt” show at the National Gallery of Art—in the spanking new Sainsbury Wing by Philly arch-mogul Robert Venturi.

Incidentally, when Venturi gave the Cigna lecture in 1985 on his plans for the commission, I trashed him from the floor for sounding too Las Veggy in his plans to make culture more accessible to born-again Brit slobs. I was wrong in almost all of my canards. It is accessible without too stupidly stooping to conquer. The detailing proves the truth of William Blake’s admonition: He who would do me good must do it in Minute Particulars. Venturi’s minute particulars are truly glorious—from the canny joining of the old building to his new wing with reflective glass that separates without disjoining, to the neat stanchions that praise 19th Century painted-cast iron railway station pillars by subtly imitating them, to the functional details of the small screening theatre where a handy rail guides you in the dark and another corral of a barrier keeps overflow crowds from getting in the way of exiting patrons.

Only the man in the cloak room had justifiable complaints: it’s too mechanized for its own goods; he even twitted Venturi on the minute particular of the garment checks: instead of two loose checks only one of which is ever handed out, he advised Venturi next time in imbed the one onto the hanger itself. (If you really want to make functional architecture, you gotta ask the guy who works there day after day.) Such nitpicks aside, it’s a grand building and goes a long way towards getting him out of Hazard’s Doghouse for having written that foolish book, “Learning from Las Vegas.”

Then, of course, let’s not forget Rembrandt. Begin with the short film on R as a history painter. (He was good in the other four genres of the era—portraits, still-lifes, landscapes, and genre—but he was especially gifted at turning historical turning points into moments of illumination.) 

This is the first big retrospective of R in 23 years and that in itself would be sufficient cause for rejoicing, but a great scholarly dustup over how many of the 3000 works attributed to him were really from his hand gives a special tartness to the display. It turns out that R was such a great teacher that beaucoup of his students turned out R-looking works. So maybe only a third of the Rembrandts in the world’s museums are really his—but all of them remain damn interesting.

Next door at the National Portrait Gallery there’s a boffo show on George Bernard Shaw which has been guided in its contents by his brilliant biographer, Michael Holroyd. It’s a gasper of a gloss on Britain’s second greatest playwright. There’s a 1930ish Movietone newsreel in which he clowns before the camera, slowly pirouetting to give the director both “profeels” of his quirky visage. 

I never knew that Shaw came from an impoverished Anglo-Irish gentry family, eager to get out of getting-poorer-all-the-time Ireland. This helps to explain his obsession with Socialism he started as a secretary for a friend of his mother’s who ran a magazine in London, then graduated to anonymous music reviews, little by little taking on drama crit, and then of course writing plays which still touch us deeply to this very day. Don’t miss this freebie. (The Rembrandt is also worth the £5 fee in any case.)

Then, as if this is Philly Time in Merrie Old England, there’s an eye-popping swatch of Alexander Calder at the Royal Academy of Arts—a ten-minute hike (through Piccadilly Circus). AC is an obvious effort of the usually stodgy old RAA to join the twentieth Century—like its year-old peekaboo John Portman-type elevators. A passel of Pakistani moppets were ogling Calder. They’d not heard of Philly. Heh, with both Calder and Venturi at work, they’ll soon get the word: Philly’s Phun.

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