Today I made a cultural foray to the capital. I had tickets with a friend for an LSO St Lukes lunchtime concert, and had arranged to meet her at quarter past twelve at Liverpool Street, which meant that if I got organised I could go to the Whitechapel Gallery first. It is only a ten minute walk from Liverpool Street, once you've found the way, and doesn't open until eleven.
I arrived at five to, and spent the time enjoying the sunshine and admiring the new Rachel Whiteread artwork on the front of the building. She has designed a frieze of bronze leaves which now adorn what was a blank space at the top of the facade, originally intended for a mosaic that proved too expensive to install. They are covered in gold leaf, and glittered splendidly in the sun. I thought they were very pretty and elegant, while musing on why it is that they are classed as an artwork rather than decoration. Presumably because they are by a famous artist. They were paid for by the Art Fund, and voted the most popular acquisition of 2012 by its members. Indeed, I voted for them myself, but mainly because I hadn't heard of most of the other candidates.
The Whitechapel Gallery is showing mixed media works by two Romanian artists, and some botanical photographs from the 1920s. I'd never heard of the Romanian pair, Gert and Uwe Tobias, but liked the look of their brightly coloured, mixed-media pictures I'd seen in the adverts for the show. I liked them in reality as well, and by a strange coincidence had been reading about life in Romania in the 1970s on the train travelling up to London. Burying the Typewriter by Carmen Bugan. The daughter of a dissident, life as a small child was idyllic, going for long stays with her beloved grandparents on their farm. Aged around ten she increasingly began to perceive the disconnect between what the state media said about life in Romania and the West, and the realities of life as lived in Romania, and the West as portrayed on Western radio. You were not supposed to listen to Western radio, or to have a typewriter that you used to produce literature protesting against the regime, hence the typewriter was buried when not in use. That was synchronicity, and provided a good starting point for looking at the Tobias brothers' strange, folk art inspired, surreal and sinister pictures.
The plant photographs were by Karl Blossfeldt, and I'd never heard of him either. Silver nitrate prints of close up shots of unfolding leaves, buds, tendrils, stems and flowers. He said that anyone could photograph plants, the key was in the looking. They were faintly disconcerting in their immense but soft detail, and I bought a postcard of pumpkin tendrils that if I am ever feeling rich I might ask the local blacksmith to turn into a piece of metalwork for the garden.
The concert was great, Joanna MacGregor playing Bach and Shostakovich preludes and fugues, pieces by each alternating in one continuous programme which we were forbidden to applaud until the end. My companion said at the end that she had enjoyed it, but that it was music for the head rather than the heart. I'm still grappling with Shostakovich, beyond the jazz suites, but JS Bach can come and play to my head any day of the week. Despite the grandeur of Bach, I couldn't help wondering how she could play the piano wearing such spindly heels. The Tim Minchin barefoot approach looks much more comfortable.
We had lunch in the cafe attached to the London Review of Books bookshop, just round the corner from the British Museum. On the way there we bumped into two friends of my friend from Northumberland, who had just been to the museum and were rushing back to Euston. That is quite an unlikely coincidence, even more so when I learned after they'd hurried off to get their train that the Alistair of Alistair and Rosie (or was it Liz?) was Alistair Anderson, the great Northumbrian concertina player. I've been a fan for around thirty years and have got several of his albums, and now I've met him, and didn't know it. The cafe is really rather nice, good food, a very exotic list of teas (I stuck to assam, but my friend had an enormously elaborate concoction involving flower buds and three different containers), and a pleasantly bookish atmosphere.
We were going to the museum to see Ice Age Art, which does what it says on the tin. It is a collection of ice age carvings on bone, stone and tusk, with a few pieces of twentieth century art interposed to show how modern the ice agers were, or alternatively how primitive art influenced artists of the last century. It is not a big show, but I rather liked it. Some of the objects were beautiful, and many were very intricately made, and the whole idea that 20,000 to 30,000 years ago people were bothering to do that sort of thing, using stone tools, was incredible. Each piece embodied dozens or hundreds of hours work, which meant that the society had to support the artists, who would have had to work during daylight hours instead of hunting or foraging. It must have been important to them. The difficulty from the curator's point of view is that we honestly don't have a clue why they did it, or what the objects meant to them. This irritated my friend more than me. I have always had a slack-jawed ability to marvel at things without worrying unduly if I don't at that moment see where they fit in to a broader narrative.
Then we met a friend of hers who is a successful producer of TV commercials, so that the friend could hand over my friend's camera, which she had accidentally left behind at a previous gathering, and we sat outside in a little square drinking a glass of chilled white wine, and I felt terribly sophisticated. And then the trains ran to time on the way home, and I remembered to go and vote, and buy some cat food because we'd run out.
Addendum Or do trains to Northumberland go from Kings Cross?