Friday, 21 April 2017

from the hideous to the sublime

Today I abandoned the garden and took myself off to London.  I wanted to see the exhibition of Sussex Modernists at Two Temple Place before it closed, which it does this Sunday, following which the building itself will be closed to casual visitors until the 2018 exhibition.  I've heard odd snippets about the place over the years, and been curious to see it, but never got organised.  I had even arranged to go with a friend last week, but that fell through because she was ill.

I am still recovering from my visit, in a sort of low-key but mind-boggled way.  The exhibition was amazingly full with people all well over the age of fifty, as if the contents of three coaches had been deposited simultaneously.  Perhaps they had.  I was surprised that a small exhibition of Modernism was so popular, even though it does finish this weekend, but perhaps like me they were largely there for the building.  Which was staggering, in that Two Temple Place is one of the most hideous buildings I've been in for ages.  Not just casually ugly, but monumentally contrived to be that way at quite vast expense.  It's no good, I'm still boggled.

It was built, or rebuilt, for William Waldorf Astor at the end of the nineteenth century, and following the death of his father William Waldorf Astor was the richest man in America.  Two Temple Place was constructed as his office, though it had a flat above, handily situated just south of The Strand and Covent Garden, mid way between the City and the West End and convenient for the law courts.  The future Lord Astor favoured the Tudor aesthetic, and Two Temple Place was just the warm-up act before he bought Hever Castle and built an entire Tudor village.  And it is stupendously ugly.  There's nothing wrong with lots of brown wood and carving per se, but Two Temple Place unfortunately fails to capture the bluff Tudor energy of a Levens Hall, and its carvings lack the vivacity of Grinling Gibbons or the masters who adorned our Medieval churches.

It provides a most incongruous background to an exhibition of Modernism of any kind.  Some of the works had to fend for themselves against the mock Tudor panelling, while others were mounted on white screens that partly blocked the view of the room, but Two Temple Place's brief is to display objects from regional museums.  That is a good objective per se, only in this case it did not lead to a marriage made in heaven.  There were some good things.  I liked the photographs by Lee Miller, and the scale model of the pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea which I have still not managed to visit.  I was mystified by the black and white documentary about the life cycle of the lobster playing on a continuous loop.  And there were some pretty terrible things.  I'm sorry, but I don't think Duncan Grant was a good painter, and if it weren't for his role within the Bloomsbury set I doubt we'd take any notice of him.

Admission was free, and I left satisfied that I had gratified my curiosity to see the building while having absolutely no desire ever to see it again.  From there to Tate Modern and their display of photographs from Elton John's collection, The Radical Eye.  This was displayed in the new Switch House in the sort of big, white rooms where the Sussex Modernists would have looked much more at home, and was not crowded at all.  They were almost entirely silver gelatin prints, dating for the most part from the mid 1920s through to 1950, and were an interesting selection, though I believe that Sir Elton has lots more at home, having been collecting for many years since photographs were less collectible than they are now.  Not that he is short of a bob or two.  Anyway, he has a good eye.  My personal favourites were the portraits and the architectural shots.

There is a fabulous run of Irving Penn portraits, and a series of famous artists hung side by side. One of Irving Penn's things was to pose his subjects in a narrow corner in his studio built from a couple of flats, and it is certainly interesting how they responded to the space.  Noel Coward stands with his arms close to his body, looking wary, while Duke Ellington sprawls genially in a chair.  On the other hand if you did not already recognise the artists you would scarcely guess them to be artists. You might suspect French Surrealist Tanguy whose comical, fluffy, sticky-up hair suggested he might inhabit some sort of creative milieu, but Derain's sturdy face and level gaze could just as well have belonged to a successful small builder or your child's geography teacher, and Satie's neatly trimmed beard would not look out of place at a Rotary meeting.

The Switch House is a splendid building, and I like the way that its broad landings have been designed as a public space for people to hang out in between moments of looking at art, with big, brown wipe clean cushions on the window sills.  The floors are staining very badly, though, and the new members' room was closed for improvements less than a year after it opened.  Maybe they are trying to damp the noise down, as it was very echoey and much too loud when I went.  I don't really have any sympathy for the people who are complaining that their new luxury flats are directly overlooked by the new Tate viewing platform, since they should have known the extension was planned when they bought the flats.  Tate Modern was the third most visited attraction in the UK in 2016 with 5.8 million visitors.  If you are going to buy a flat with external walls almost entirely made of glass right opposite the third most popular visitor attraction in the country what can you expect?

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