Wednesday, 4 May 2016

south of the river

Today I went to the Dulwich Picture Gallery.  Dulwich is still a pig to get to from north Essex, because London Bridge station has still got building works and so you have to work your way round by tube from Liverpool Street to Victoria before heading out of central London again, and it takes ages.  I had a salutary experience on the tube, finding my western liberal tolerance and rational attitude to risk might both be merely skin deep, as we hopped on to a train only to find that the opposite side of the carriage was occupied by a woman in full length black Islamic robe and head covering, who instead of sitting facing the other passengers was standing facing the wall, while fiddling with a rucksack on the seat in front of her.  I was quite ashamed at how relieved I was when she got off at the next stop.

Dulwich is as ever an island of bourgeois loveliness in the great sea of south London.  The reason for making the pilgrimage was the current temporary exhibition, which ends on 15 May, of the works of a little known Norwegian artist Nikolai Astrup.  It is according to the gallery website the first major exhibition of his work in London, and indeed the world, outside Norway.  He was active in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century before dying of pneumonia at the age of only 47. Like Grieg, the damp of his native country did not suit him, and like Grieg he couldn't bear to leave.  Astrup didn't even settle in Oslo where he might have found more patrons and a touch of cosmopolitan life, but returned to his village in the countryside, married, had children, tended his garden with a particular penchant for growing rhubarb, and painted the mountains, the lakes, the marsh marigolds, the trees, his family and his house.

I really liked his work.  It shows enormous feeling for his native landscape and the scenes of his childhood.  Not especially innovative, or dazzlingly technically brilliant, but imbued with spirit.  In fact, not unlike Emily Carr, another foreign artist almost unknown in the UK to be featured at Dulwich.  He made beautiful woodcuts and linocuts as well.  I have no idea why Andrew Graham-Dixon's recent series on Scandinavian art for BBC 4 left him out, ending his survey of Norwegian painting with Munch.  I was too mean to buy the book, but almost wish I had, as I should have liked to know more about who might have influenced him.  He studied in Paris and Berlin, and I thought I detected echos of Manet and Gaugin and Van Gogh in his work.

From the Dulwich Picture Gallery it is not a very long walk to the Horniman Museum, and the first half is through Dulwich Park, which is very nice, though the second half is along the south circular and is not so pretty.  The Horniman has a good reputation, and I was curious to see it, plus according to their website we could get the overground back from Forest Hill instead of looping back to Victoria.  My companion was amenable to the suggestion, but I still felt responsible for that part of the expedition, and was left with a vague feeling that the Horniman had let me down.  It is not clear where you should go even when you get there, so we walked round three sides of a square getting from the main road to the museum building, and once we'd entered the museum lobby it wasn't at all obvious what there was to see.

We took pot luck with natural history, and found ourselves in a room full of mahogany display cases full of stuffed dead things, interspersed with the fragmented remains of animals.  I find stuffed animals awfully depressing, and it's possible nowadays to explain an armadillo's skin without killing the armadillo to do it.  The Stubbs portrait of a kangaroo recently saved for the nation by the Art Fund was good, that he did entirely from other people's descriptions without ever having actually seen one, but neither of us liked the taxidermy, apart from the sign requesting us not to touch the walrus or sit on the iceberg, which had a grim charm.  Then we looked at some photos of Rio, which gave way to photos of Romania and back to Rio, and then a subterranean room of stuff collected by Mr Horniman because it was interesting.  A torture chair from the Spanish inquisition that was probably mocked up in the nineteenth century, though possibly out of genuine bits of earlier instruments of torture, glass cases of poor dead blue butterflies, puppets, ceremonial masks. Loads of random things.  I began to experience the vague sense of growing claustrophobia I felt going around the National Trust's preposterously overstuffed Snowshill Manor.

We agreed that the Horniman had done us a nice cup of tea but we were glad we hadn't made a special trip just to see it, and beat the retreat towards Forest Hill, pausing only to look a a magnificent and totally empty conservatory, now isolated from the rest of the museum but who knows, perhaps originally attached to Mr Horniman's house, that he filled steadily with his collection until there was no more space and he and his family had to move out into rented accommodation.  We could have hired the conservatory for our function, had we wanted to hold a function in south London.  After I got home I received an email from my friend, whose partner grew up in Dulwich, saying that there was more to the Horniman than that and we had missed bits of it. All I can say is, they should get some better signs.

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