London Art Visit – Part 1

by Jonathan Blaustein

I first met Hugo in graduate school. Day one, I believe. It took me a few months to discern that he was well born. The type that neither brags nor name drops. From London originally, he was raised in Upper Manhattan, and attended the right sort of schools. (We used to laugh at the visual of a little 5 year old in short pants, tossing his British accent amidst the swarms of rabid New Yorkers.)

We stayed close in school, taking the same photography classes, and graduated together. Other than the random visit to the Soho House, lounging in the roof-top pool, high above the Meatpacking District, he acted no differently than any other graduate student. When I moved back to Taos, he came and visited twice, tearing up the slopes with his Swiss-style-skiing. (All hips. Pretty to look at, but you wouldn’t really want to take it into bumpy trees.)

And then, nothing. Our relationship devolved into monthly two sentence emails, as he made it plain that the next visit was on me. He moved back to London, the economy fell apart, and the chances of me scrounging up the cash for an Intercontinental plane ticket were only slightly larger than Rick Santorum becoming President.

Relationships, like plants, need water. Email, Facebook, Twitter, they all work for basic relationship maintenance, but friends need to see each other from time to time. Or things die. So when I finally got to visit London last month (to report on the Art scene for our faithful APE readers,) I had an extra-special-double-secret reason to go.

Emerging from the plane, my first time in the UK, I thought it no different from any other jetway. It calmed my nerves after the long trip. As soon as I set foot in passport control, it was clear that I wasn’t in America anymore. The line snaked along under purple lighting and exposed silver duct-work, and my fellow travelers hailed, rather obviously, from Afghanistan, Mongolia & Southeast Asia. I waited my turn, passed through the booth, and was off.

As a resident of America’s car culture, there are few things as pleasurable as emerging from a foreign airport and hopping on a train in the basement. The type that whisks (or crawls) you into the heart of town, for little cost. (As opposed to the $35 taxi ride I recently took on the way back to Houston Hobby.) Luckily, Hugo lived just a few blocks off the Picadilly Line, the very same train I grabbed at Heathrow.

Just over an hour later, I knocked at Hugo’s door, in the shadow of the gorgeous Emirates Stadium in North London. (Yes, I follow Arsenal. Predictable, no?) Hugo answered the call, dressed impeccably in the kind of gentleman’s pajamas that only make sense in certain circumstances. (Very sharp, but I don’t think I could pull them off on the farm.) He said, “Great to see you again, Old Chap.” Game on.

It couldn’t have been more than two minutes before I had a perfect Lavazza espresso in my hands, chased by some beautiful Italian mineral water. I barely exaggerate when I say that for the next 96 hours, while awake, there was always some brain-chemistry-enhancing-substance in my hands: coffee, tea, water, wine, gin, champagne, or a hand-rolled cigarette. I normally don’t smoke, but to properly battle jet-lag, that mashup of adrenaline, caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and H20 works very well. (Until the crash, of course. But you don’t want to hear about that.)

Why all the fuss about Hugo, and his regal understanding of hospitality? Because I was there to see Art, and he was my guide. For the first time since I wandered the streets of Rome, trailing my freshly-taught younger brother, I let someone else do the planning. Hugo knows me very well, and understands my taste in Art, among other things. So I allowed him to pick our spots, as well as the order in which we saw them. Perhaps he was an over-qualified tour guide, but you are the beneficiaries, so I thought a bit of backstory was appropriate.

All this was on a Thursday morning. The tour started that afternoon, after we visited with a curator friend of his. She was lovely, but I’ll respect everyone’s privacy for once, and not drop her name. (I didn’t know she was important at the time anyway.) The three of us hopped into Hugo’s 1983 black Porsche, replete with whale-tail and silly cherry-colored-checkered seats. It was a flashback to the 80’s, yes, but served like a better version of an ironic mustache. So cheesy it was cool. So nerdish it was smooth.

We ate lunch in the East End, apparently trendy, and then hit a few galleries so that I could earn my keep. We saw 150 year old paper negatives at Daniel Blau, which only served to highlight the importance of talent and vision. Several pieces, by Gustave de Beaucorps, jumped off the wall, and the rest didn’t. Even the power of age didn’t lift a pedestrian image above its merit. Though I did feel that in a digital age, it was far more difficult to connect to the passage of time. As everything can now be faked, it sometimes disempowers the real thing.

Another highlight was Yayoi Kusama at Victoria Miro. Countless huge paintings hung on the wall, the Pop palette mixed up with an interesting, Eastern-tinged symbol set. Hard to believe so much work was available to view, as the artist was having a concurrent show at Tate Modern. (Which I then felt less of a need to see.) We also went to a public gallery called Parasol Unit, where there were some terrific Richard Long pieces on the wall. White China clay hand prints on black paper, marching from one corner of the composition to another. Beautiful and elegant. (Like London?)

Whipping through the streets, shortly thereafter, Hugo pulled to the side of the road by a tube station, and ejected me out with little notice. I was already trending late for my aforementioned meeting with Aron Mörel, and there was no time to waste. I was tardy, in the end, but only because I couldn’t sort which direction was which back on street level. And my fellow pedestrians were no help at all. (Not surprisingly, the only times I felt lost and out of place in this brilliant city were when I was alone, and trying to find my way.)

When it happened Friday morning, not 300 yards from the MACK headquarters, I got a great piece of advice from a local. Staring helplessly at a map, certain that Denmark St was practically within reach, I asked a nice man which way was North. That was all the help I needed to orient myself. He laughed. “There’s no such thing as North, South, East and West in London,” he said. “My wife’s American, so I can see why you’d make that mistake. She was the same.” Then he directed me the wrong way. (By accident, of course.)

It wasn’t until that afternoon, deep into Hugo’s perfect Friday Art tour, that I understood what the gent meant. We ambled from one plaza to another, or one alleyway, or one narrow lane. Here in Taos, I can see for 100 miles, no lie. But in London, “Here” was never more than a couple hundred yards in any direction. We’d not yet made it to the Thames, so every turn we took just landed us back into a serpentine block of beautiful buildings, not so different than the last. It made mid-town New York’s grid look positively German. What it lacked in perspective, though, it more than made up for in charm. (Seriously, though. How do they keep London so clean?)

The first stop on our tour was the British Museum, to see the King’s Gallery. I haven’t googled it to fact-check, but Hugo said it was the world’s first public Art museum. And by public, I mean free. None of the public museum and galleries in town charge a fee, unless you’re seeing a special exhibition. We sauntered in, without even a bag check, and the place was teeming with people. Think about it. In NYC, at $25 a ticket, a family of four has to shell out $100 to experience the best art. And that’s per museum. Here: Free. Brilliant.

The King’s Gallery looked like a huge library in a castle somewhere in the country, with an open second story covered with books. There was far too much to see to take it all in, so as a viewer, one gravitates to whatever pulls you. Like shopping in the Mega-mart. You might not need any laundry detergent, but of course you have to have some pickles. I was delighted there, and all trip for that matter, to see things I’d never seen before.

What did I love? Some greenish-patina colored Centurion helmets. Amazing. I guessed Roman, and was not too far off. They were Etruscan, so I was 500 years too late. There were also some glazed relief tiles from Buckinghamshire, made in the 13th or 14th Century. A crucifixion piece looked like a mashup of Tim Burton and Monty Python, gruesome and yet witty. And, of course, very old.

I saw 13th Century French enamel cups that looked like Hobbit houses from the Shire, or Trullo homes from Basilicata. The colors, blue yellow red and gold seduced me, all these years later. (Which was a theme of the day, ancient color alive and vibrant. Makes me rethink the idea of archival pigment inks.) Then, an Ice-Age-Hand-Axe found inside a Roman elephant in 43 AD. Yes, you read that right. It’s since been dated to 400,000 years ago. (I suppose it’s better not to ask how it was found inside an elephant. Perhaps Donald Trump Jr. was responsible.)

Next, a colossal foot, on a pedestal, from Ancient Greece. It reeked of totemic power, like it was crushing down on your throat. Then, a gravestone, in Arabic, from 1032 AD. (Rest in peace, Ali, son of Ahmad.) On to Persian glazed tiles, a Marble Dog Vishnu from Rajasthan, and the most beautiful Chinese porcelain Bodhisattvas I’ve ever seen. Yes, this was all in one gallery in one museum. And, to be clear, I only saw 5% of what was on display in the King’s Gallery. So much human genius, so little time.

Out we went, into another gallery, and I found myself facing icons from the Aztec Empire. Back on familiar terrain, or so I thought, we walked up to a double-headed turquoise snake sculpture, with sharp, dangerous teeth. (Real? Maybe.) Named Nahautl, it was as powerful and scary an object as I’ve seen. I could almost smell the blood in the air, singed as the hearts burned in vats on top of the temples.

On through the Americas, we ended up back where I began. Bending down, I saw a beautiful piece of pottery, from Diego Romero. (Born 1969.) It was from the Cochiti Pueblo, in-between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Can you believe it? I couldn’t, so I yelled out “Big Ups to Cochiti Pueblo,” and then exclaimed that I might be the only person in London at the time who knew exactly where it was. (Big dam, little lake.) Was I ridiculous? I don’t know, as my fellow museum-goers were too polite to mock me.

Back into the street, we needed a coffee. (Remember, always have some narcotic substance in your bloodstream at all times.) Write this one down. 1.5 blocks from the entrance to the British Museum, there’s a great little spot called the Camera Cafe. Lenses, cameras, espresso, and Chicken Chow Mein, all in one spot. The man making coffee even gave us a free cookie, as we’d only bought one for the two of us, and he thought we’d made a mistake. A must for visiting photographers and Londoners alike.

On to the National Gallery of Art, also free. Hugo led us straight to the Florentine Renaissance paintings, to see Paolo Uccello, in particular, with whom I wasn’t familiar. A huge piece, “The Battle of San Romano,” was a revelation of color and early perspective, which was still working itself out. As such, the background battlers, in the upper corner, looked like something out of a contemporary video game: rendered to keep the eye moving along, but far from the important bits. Uccello also had a dragon painting, from 1470, which made me feel like I was really in England. (Despite its Florentine origins.) It was beautiful, and tame compared to what I saw next. (After some brilliant Fra Angelico pieces, that is.)

We headed for the Dutch galleries, as I always love to see some new Rembrandts when possible. They were there, but less special than what I’ve seen before. So, as I spun, unimpressed, I was shocked by what I faced. Cornelius van Haarlem, in 1588, painted an image of a dragon eating some dude’s face. Mid-chew. Grotesque, gory, and gifted, it stopped me cold.

I looked until I couldn’t look anymore. How have I never seen such a thing before? Nearby, El Greco’s “Christ driving the Traders from the Temple,” stood up to it, though, and wiped the face blood from my RAM.

Yes, it’s time to compare our brains to a computer. We only have so much buffer space, before things don’t stick. They just push each out of the way, and hope to be good enough, or lucky enough, to write to the hard drive of our deep consciousness. That’s why I’m typing this article a full month after I arrived home.

Travel, and art, make our brain work so hard that it’s impossible to know what’s important in the moment. I can’t even remember what most of the buildings looked like, as each new nook of the city pushed out my memory of the one before. So on that note, having already dropped 2300 words on your head, let’s pause for a respite. This London tale will be continued tomorrow.

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 4 Comments On This Article.

  1. Enjoyed this. I go to the BM to see the famous stone lion, disappointingly up on a pedestal in the lobby now not guarding the steps: it helped Dr. Johnson refute Idealism (the empiricist theory that it’s all in the mind) – Boswell records that discussing the philosophy while passing out of the Museum Johnson, Johnson turned to the lion and kicked it, saying “I refute it thus.”

  2. Gaylen Rebbe

    Thank you so much for reminding me of my first trip to London . You have just inspired our nest trip abroad.