Bit of a departure from the norm today, fair readers. Its not often that I get to see an exhibition – Him Indoors doesn’t care for them (in fact, Him Indoors doesn’t really care for anything unless it is running at Chepstow or has curtains and footlights. In fact, I couldn’t even tempt him with the prospect of an exhibition about horses at the British Museum a while back; I thought I was onto a potential “something for everyone” winner there but no dice, apparently). So it was splendid to hear from an old friend that he would be in town to see this and would I like to go. As Him Indoors would be in full on Diva mode that day because of a concert in the evening in which he was singing, I decided that here was my opportunity to get out of the house and out of what is left of his hair.
Part of the pleasure I get out of exhibitions is people watching – each museum or gallery seems to have a definite “type” and the RA delivers this in spades. In fact, had it not been so bloody cold I think I could have happily just sat in the courtyard watching people in brightly coloured corduroy trousers and Puffa jackets going back and forth – if only to catch my breath; thanks to Southeastern Trains’ somewhat lax interpretation of the notion of timekeeping I was late and, because of the traffic along Piccadilly, I had run (for which read “clumped along in a pair of shoes that seemed to weigh more with every step”) more or less the entire length of the road trying to dodge clueless tourists all the way.
Strangely, for an exhibition that is finishing at the end of next week, the place seemed to be heaving with people and this would, in one sense, have a serious knock-on effect on my enjoyment, about which more shortly. Before that, I have to explain about my “exhibition game”, the rules of which were explained to me by a kindly teacher back in my distant past. The set up is this: as a reward for being such a wonderful person, the curators have decreed that you are allowed to take home one – and only one – item from the exhibition. This item has to be chosen from a shortlist of candidates; one item from each room in the exhibition. Regardless of the number of items in the room, as you leave the room you have to nominate one item for your shortlist, giving a short but coherent reason why. Whether or not your home would actually be able to accommodate the item is superfluous (I’ve “taken home” everything from items of domestic china to 80-feet frescoes in the past). As you leave the exhibition, you have to make the final choice from your shortlist. You are allowed to take home the same item as your companion/s if necessary. Hopefully your choice is rewarded by being able to buy a postcard of your item in the gift shop afterwards – again, about which more anon.
The first room of the exhibition is the easiest – because there is only one thing in it; the ancient Greek sculpture Dancing Satyr; a stunning piece which was apparently hauled up in a fishing net off the coast of Sicily in 1989. Its stunning because it has such a sense of movement; an instant of time caught in bronze. Is he dancing? Running away from someone? Running towards someone? Drunkenly reeling? We’ll never know for sure, so we can make up our own story around it. Its one of the few exhibits that you can walk all the way around and examine from all angles – but in order to read the explanatory notes about it, you have to plonk yourself directly in front of it (obscuring the piece for those coming through the entrance door behind you), bend down and peer myopically at the tiny piece of card printed in a relatively small font. As the piece stands in the centre of an enormous square plinth, you would have thought that the curators would have seen fit to have put a card at each corner, but there’s just one card, inconveniently and inconsiderately placed. This lack of thought and consideration is carried through practically every other exhibit – time and time again I had to go without any background information on something purely because the notes on it were poorly and inconveniently placed. On the few occasions when I did manage to struggle through the crowd looking at a particular exhibit to read the card, the information was generally sparse, terse and uninformative. Often the card itself was so inconveniently placed that I didn’t feel up to the struggle of getting to a position from where I could read it. I suppose this is so that you are forced to go and by the exhibition catalogue in order to understand what you have seen.
The second room (and in fact all the subsequent rooms) comes across as a bit of a mish mash. There is no chronology, so you don’t get to trace the development of ideas, techniques or cultures. After a while, it all becomes like rummaging through a vast attic – you never know quite what you are going to unearth next. This becomes tiring, as you are constantly having to reappraise, rethink, shift your focus – and in fact by the later rooms I was getting seriously “arted out” because of the mental effort required in sorting out the jumble of ideas, styles and themes into something vaguely coherent. There are some seriously wonderful things in this room, some of which surprised me by finding their way onto my shortlist. For a while, I dithered over a Giacometti called “La Cage” and which I wouldn’t normally have given more than a passing glance to but for some unfathomable reason I found it strangely beautiful. Lorenzo Ghiberti’s St. Stephen was momentarily arresting, until you turn through 180 degrees and find yourself looking at a Roman bronze from the Archaeological Museum in Naples which predates it by around 1500 years and which is a far superior work of art, both aesthetically and artistically. By contrast (and its obviously a deliberate juxtaposition by the curators), St. Stephen looks formulaic and dead, whereas the Roman senator seems vibrant and alive.
There is another interesting juxtaposition if you know where to look. In a small, cramped case stands Cellini’s “Modello for a statue of Perseus holding the head of Medusa” – an exquisite piece, less than 2 feet tall but full of movement and life. The body of the dead Medusa lies on its back, arched over a deep cushion, while gore spills from the neck. Above, Perseus stands triumphant, one foot seemingly poised to kick the body away, the other planted firmly on the ground. It’s a lovely, lively thing. And yet above it towers a 19th century copy, at least three times life-size; and its crass and lumpy, with none of the freshness or vitality of the work that inspired it. The composition is different; Medusa now lies flat on the ground, Perseus holds her head at a completely different angle. His body seems awkward, out of proportion. Its horrible. Two “horsey-types” agree with me; I love nattering to strangers at exhibitions. There are some exhibits in this room that simply fail to register for some reason – Rustici’s “St John the Baptist preaching to a Levite and a Pharisee” in particular. The medieval “Weeper” figures don’t elicit much emotional response other than prompting a short discussion on how unflattering 15th century dress styles were to the fuller figure.
The third and fourth rooms– Animals – are full of exciting things – a wonderful horse’s head, a stylistically fascinating chimera, a wonderfully animated tiger attacking an alligator. “That’s Picasso” says one woman loudly, pointing to a hideous figure of an ape. “Picasso was fucking ugly then” I nearly respond out loud. Next to it is a wonderfully serene figure of the cat goddess Bastet from ancient Egypt and a turkey so lifelike that I cannot see why everyone isn’t raving about it. The horse’s head and the turkey go straight on my list, although it’s a tough decision between the horse’s head and the chimera.
The following rooms are a challenge – the exhibits are smaller, more stylistically diverse and rather less interesting (the comparison with an attic starts to fade and is replaced by a junk shop) and my interest starts to wane sharply at this point. The room of religious icons leaves both me and DBA completely cold, and though the final room contains some busts and masks which both of us would have found stimulating had they been placed in an earlier room, I think we’ve both had enough by this point. Anyway, my feet are getting tired and I need some coffee, so we wander in search of a seat and caffeine – and hopefully a postcard. Coming home with me is the tiny model of Perseus, after an intense mental struggle between that, the horse’s head and the chimera. The Dancing Satyr is going home on the train with DBA to St. Albans. But we are both stymied – neither of these wonderful pieces have been thought worthy by the RA to be the subject of a postcard. My choice is, I suppose, justifiable; it’s a small, relatively unimportant piece, and I could always settle for the horse’s head. But no Dancing Satyr postcard? Its arguably the most exciting piece in the entire exhibition. The postcard offering is, frankly, piss poor and ill advised. Some of them depict exhibits so lacklustre and insignificant that I can’t even remember having seen them. I often find this happens with exhibition postcards; I know that they are relatively expensive to produce in terms of what they actually are, and copyrights are difficult to obtain from museums anxious to preserve the exclusivity and integrity of their artefacts. But for an exhibition of some 700 pieces, I am sure that the RA could come up with more than 9 decent postcards – particularly of the major works, and the most exciting ones. As I turn to leave the shop, having been baulked of my Perseus, I mutter loudly “The world would be a much better place if I was in charge of it”. DBA, denied his satyr, agrees with me and we go in search of coffee and a sit down; these things are in our control even if the satyr wouldn’t have fitted in the luggage rack and Perseus would probably have been a terrible dust magnet.