jctv: 31.12.2011HOME




A Week in London, day II: The V&A

The next day I spent in The V&A with David, Lucy and Josh, which was brilliant. Spent a long and pleasant time revisiting the English Galleries which are a glory to behold and show that English craftsmanship certainly doesn’t need the Parthenon Frieze to shine. It is all beautifully arranged and endlessly interesting. There is too much, much too much to mention, but if I had to make a choice it would have to be Grinling Gibbons’ masterpiece with its columns carved as seen from a strangely foreshortened perspective, Josiah Wedgewood’s lovely little catalogue (even though I do not much care for his china) and the seventeenth century marquetry cabinet whose details I forget. To be able to make something so fine must lead to a happiness that can only be faintly echoed in the appreciation and ownership of it, surely. But as I say, there is so much more. We also went to see the exhibition on the power of making and oohed and aahed at the little blanket of triangular bits of wood, the bicycle studded with diamonds and the two wooden bicycles as well as the 28 cylinder motorbike, not to forget the pencil sculptures and the beautifully made shoes and the machines and robots...

After Lunch in the beautifully tiled, seasonal almanak café , I was on my own and I visited the brilliant ceramics department done by Reino with its glass cabinets and endless shelves heavy with stuff, shimmering and glossy in a surreal abundance. Shelf after shelf with plates and cups and pots and bits and pieces. I had visited the galleries only a few weeks before with my students from the Naked Architect Studio, when we were given a tour on the theme of perfection by Reino. He showed us the way the Chinese make their bowls and the way the Japanese make theirs and what a world of difference there is between them. The Chinese bowls, first shaped by hand on the wheel and then scraped to an unimaginable thinness and perfection with a spatula, while the Japanese tea-ceremony china is baked with a sophisticated roughness and the products are carefully inspected and strictly selected for qualities of poverty and happy accidents. Reino had also shown us some lustre ware popular in Arabia and southern Spain with wonderful bold patterns and themes and there were the strange vases and dishes with meticulously crafted frogs and serpents done by some sixteenth century potter whose name I forget.

After that I went to an old favourite, the Indian and Middle Eastern galleries and stood for a long and happy time contemplating the enormous Ardabil carpet, unraveling its intricate geomtery and imagining the 300 knots per square inch as well as the delicate little fingers that must have knotted them. This had been part of the perfection tour in November too. Strangely enough one can only get a good sense of its overall pattern from a photograph. It is so large that it becomes impossible to stand back far enough to see it whole. And, it has to be said, it is as a whole that it does its trick with greatest effect.

I went past my old favourite, the 19th century shawl showing a map of the city of Srinagar, capital of Kashmir, something of a model for my own bits and pieces and I gawped at the other wonderful things, the miniatures and the clothes and you name it.

I came across the Raphael Cartoons and again, like a few years ago, felt strangely disappointed. What are they doing there? Why are they mounted in such a dead and soundless space? Never mind. Another relative disappointment, it has to be said, was the architectural gallery. The theme of Albertopolis was good and interesting. It should, I think, become the main theme of the exhibition, while most of the rest should be quietly and carefully put away. The “funny” portrait of Lutyens should be hung up in a pub where it belongs or should be in the collection of some well-meaning and proud architect or historian who knows not what to do with his wealth. Lutyens is much too good an architect to have that thing as his most visible representative in the museum, it is a shame. And he should certainly not be kept there to pander to the bored. The bored are boring.  Beautifully made models are objects of devotion and should be appreciated for themselves. The same goes for renderings and drawings. We should worry less about the potential boredom of visitors who cannot (yet) appreciate the beauty of the architect’s craft (which is not in the first place the building itself but the drawing and the model) and present these as worthy things in themselves, to be enjoyed for the information they give about the building they point to, but also to be enjoyed as an object of love and devotion to light and shade, to spatial modulation. They should have lovingly built models and pictures and full-scale models of the details of Lutyens’ homes, his monuments and his work in New Delhi. Instead the supposedly “informative” approach where things are meant to inform you about objects that are not there makes everything look second best, and merely representative. Moreover some of the choices in the collection exhibited appear arbitrary and do not appear to reflect or contribute to any debate in the past or the present known to me. I would do that one differently. Still, I had a good time and liked some of the models for their own sake. And then there was the glass gallery which, quite simply, is pure joy, a magic, fairy-tale space of immense lustrous wealth, resonating distantly with the echoes of crowded good cheer, too much drink and emphatically affirmed friendship, loving detail, shimmering texture, bright, iridescent colour, unimaginable ingenuity, cryptic and clever symbolism, pure delight and wild craftsmanship. All that combines into one impression of deep joy. The glass and ceramics galleries for sheer effect get my prize, although the English galleries are very serious contenders.

I ended the day in the photography gallery looking at some of the exquisite prints of classic photographers like Walker Evans, Harry Callahan and Eugène Atget and others, whose name, infuriatingly I forget. In any case there was an early landscape photographer whose work was simply astonishing, large panoramic landscapes as sharp as a winter sky and as clear as a vision of Heaven. Harry Callahan’s portraits of his wife a child are brilliant, huge panoramic views of a beach with horizon, or an urban setting, or the skyline of Manhattan and every time two tiny figures in the centre, a wife and a child, people we think we know, drowned in their all-consuming background.

A triumphal arch and city gate with the city itself mounted on top. A heavy, conceptual thing this. Not sure what to make of it: The gate furnishes you with a model of what it is a gate to, a post modernist's gift, a heterotopic pudding.  
Grinling Gibbons'masterpiece. The photograph is miserable. But I couldn't not place it. It conveys nothing of its extraordinariness  
Nice bit of gold stuffing. I am not altogether sure why I photographed it, but as an extravaganza of sheer exuberance it does its trick  
The model of Brunelleschi's Lantern. Pure delight, especially the little staircase nestled between the ribs leading up to it.  
Geaorge Gilbert Scott, port-a-model for a country house  
A model of a timber frame house as op art  
Model of the tower of the houses of Parliament. Beautifully detailed and a lovely ivory colour  
The shawl showing the city of Srinagar. All the houses shown in elevation and folded down to form a plan. Gardens and rivers included, a microscopist's delight.  
St Francis with bloody feet and someone else without  
Staircase in the V&A  
Feet fetish  
Same feet, same fetish  
Shadow fetish  
A ghost in the mirror  
Same lady, doing her lady Macbeth thing  


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