When Samuel Johnson observed (to his friend and biographer James Boswell), that when ‘a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford’, he’d clearly never hurtled northwards, after four whistle stop days in the capital, thanking the Lord and Virgin trains to be heading home to the fresh air of Cumbria, cleaner streets and a restful weekend.
Johnson also reckoned that ‘a country gentleman should bring his lady to visit London as soon as he can, that they may have agreeable topicks [sic] for conversation when they are by themselves’. And thus it was we’d ventured south – him for four days of IT geekiness, me (like Boswell), ‘full of zest’ for all I might do.
And, don’t get me wrong, it was great. What with Carole King’s Beautiful, The Bodyguard, the Royal Academy, National Portrait Gallery and the V&A, an altercation outside Selfridges between a woman and a bus, and a whole new vinaceous experience (Indian Sauvignon Blanc? Who knew?), and shopping (of course), where do I start?
Artsy fartsy abstracts
The Royal Academy then, where the hoped-for Hockneys had been cruelly overtaken by room after room of Abstract Expressionists.
And here I have a confession. I just don’t get it. I didn’t get it way back when, as a wide-eyed art student, and I still don’t get it now. I don’t get the art and I really don’t get all the artsy fartsy, strangulated prose they write about it.
Take Gorky’s Water of the Flowery Mill where the artist’s ‘highly fluid paint handling’ anticipates ‘the future gesturalism of other Abstract Expressionists’ and references a mill and a bridge over the Housatonic River in Connecticut. Not that you’d know. ‘Gesturalism’, apparently, is a method of painting characterised by ‘energetic, expressive brushstrokes deliberately emphasising the sweep of the painter’s arm or movement of the hand’ but strangely absent from my OED (Third Edition).
De Kooning painted a series of six ‘woman’ paintings which got him accused of misogyny, having made them ‘satiric and monstrous’. Or, as the pamphlet said, ‘to the claustrophobic realms of female sexuality, de Kooning opposed the chaotic medley of the modern urban metropolis’. What?
Conrad Marca-Relli, I learn, developed a technique for sticking ‘biomorphically-shaped painted and dyed pieces’ to the surfaces of his pictures, cutting the shapes out quickly, ‘to capture his intuitive, creative impulses’ and then pinning them to the canvas where they ‘became elements of the painting, alongside brushwork and splattered colour’.
And Reinhart painted canvases which appear to be entirely monochromatic but are actually composed of ‘deep shades of red, blue and green’ which draw your gaze hypnotically inwards to the layers of colour underneath. I concede that these are actually quite clever, although I still can’t help thinking I’ve just been duped. It’s just a big black square in a frame! I know! Philistine!
But then came the Pollocks. Room after room of Pollocks. His later works. And the Pollocks changed my view. Probably because they’re bright and colourful and splattered and decorative and not pretending to be a mill by a bridge over a river, or a savagely dissected female body, or somebody’s father’s funeral byre. They’re just an artist chucking paint on a canvas and seeing what shapes he can make. And not even pretending to do otherwise. Not that this stopped the lyricists with their ‘energy and motion made visible… memories arrested in space’.
But even Jackson Pollock couldn’t save me from Time Out. According to them, ‘if you don’t leave this show feeling completely overwhelmed and totally breathless, you’re either blind, dead or a bit of a dick’. Well that’s me told.
Thankfully, I appear to have pipped Time Out to the National Portrait Gallery for ‘Picasso Portraits’ which had just opened. Around 80 exhibits trace the development of Picasso’s work, through his portrayal of family, friends and lovers – in caricature, formal study and spontaneous expression, often working from memory – and work which I viewed with an ever-widening smile on my lips. Definitely worth a visit!
From childhood, Picasso delighted in caricature, honing his style through swiftly executed sketches, matching the style of his scribblings to the idiosyncrasies of his sitter. He rarely worked with strangers so all his renditions were gently teasing in-jokes. That said, I particularly liked the early self-portrait rendered under pressure from his art teacher father that he should master the ability to produce true ‘likenesses’ to ensure his place in society (and money in the bank).
Picasso himself was dismissive of the critics’ inclination to wax lyrical, to analyse and interpret an artist’s work, see meaning where none exists. When asked to explain Guernica – perhaps his best-known work – depicting the gruesome bombing of a Basque Country village in northern Spain (not shown here, of course, this being portraiture), his response was that ‘this bull is a bull and this horse is a horse. If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously. I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are’. Hear, hear!
Still reeling from the Sixties
Picasso exploded onto the British art scene with an exhibition at the Tate Gallery in July 1960, dubbed an ‘art blockbuster’ by Tatler magazine. He changed the world of art – inspiring the likes of Hockney and every experimental artist since – but then the world itself was changing. As we were reminded at the V&A where You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 is in full swing, asking us how ‘the finished and unfinished revolutions of the late 1960s changed the way we live today and think about the future’.
Cue a journey through my formative years, the album covers peppering the walls not unlike the contents of my still treasured ‘LP cupboard’. But it was sobering to have spelled out just what was going on out there in the world whilst we were busy internalising lyrics we barely understood and dreaming of our future life as a pop star’s wife. (Just me?)
So many things we take for granted now, trace back to then (multiculturalism, idealism, feminism, gay liberation, black rights, environmentalism), so many events which shaped the world we know, played out in the music we sang along to. Profumo and Keeler, The Female Eunuch, the contraceptive pill, mini skirts and sex (which, as we all knew, hadn’t existed prior to the sixties), the Cuban missile crisis, JFK (and remembering where you were when he was shot), Martin Luther King, space exploration and man’s first steps on the Moon, Vietnam, Flower Power and Woodstock (and that Star Spangled Banner, Hendrix-style), and too many bands to mention (really, I’d be here all day, but you know them. You know them all. Forget the LP cupboard, they’re in your DNA), John and Yoko in bed, Mao’s ‘cultural revolution’, Radio Caroline, Twiggy, Biba and Vidal Sassoon, Polaroid cameras and Barclaycard.
Yes, Barclaycard, thanks to whom the waiting was ultimately taken out of wanting with the later launch of its rival, the Access card. Oh advertising, you’ve got so much to answer for – Volkswagen Beetles, cigarettes, Coca Cola, tigers in your tank and ‘going to work on an egg’ (have one ‘on the boil’ when the chicken knocks on the door and you could ‘win a one pound Premium Bond!’) Bigger! Better! Richer! Sexier! All those dangling carrots!
I particularly liked an ad for men’s hairpieces: ‘Cover that groovy long hair’ to secure a job during the week, then ‘let it swing long again on weekends!’ Another invites us to ‘Guess how many joints in the jar!’ Call it in to ‘Smoke-in Central’ for the chance to win ‘a free pound of marijuana!’ How times change.
Some things, arguably, have just turned full circle. ‘Imagine,’ ran one advertisement, ‘a generation being able to buy houses which their parents could only have dreamt of owning, then being able to choose new contents, not secondhand’.
And television! It was in 1960 when Margaret Mead, an American cultural anthropologist, observed that ‘thanks to television, for the first time the young are seeing history made before it is censored by their elders’. Now, with the 24-hour horror of the everyday, ever-present on our screens, how we wish it were not so.
We emerged blinking into the daylight, me and my companion for the day, still reeling from the Sixties. Which, on reflection, pretty much still sums up the world we now live in: still reeling from the Sixties.
Moped mobile raiders
Who’d have thought, back then, that Londoners would one day be navigating their way blindly down any given street, eyes cast permanently downwards at a plastic screen, thumb poised ever-ready to connect? Safe in the knowledge they never collide because visitors like me spend the entire day swerving to avoid them.
‘Don’t they worry about thieves?’ I thought. ‘Handsets now so two-a-penny, there’s no longer any need to nick one?’ But no. According to Thursday’s Evening Standard a pillion ‘moped raider’ (nice Sixties touch) who snatched twenty-one phones in an hour from ‘unsuspecting pedestrians’ was jailed for more than three years. Police had to scramble a helicopter to track the thief and his driver as the scooter mounted kerbs and wove its way along crowded pavements.
The last twelve months have seen 4,600 moped phone muggings, no less – up from just 372 in 2011. Scotland Yard even launched a dedicated unit, Operation Attrition, to tackle the problem.
One 28-year-old victim told how muggers mounted the pavement and snatched her iPhone as she spoke to her mother, then targeted another woman seconds later.
‘You can’t prepare yourself,’ she said. ‘You might think if someone comes up behind you then you’ll grab your phone tight in your hand but there’s no option apart from not speaking on your phone on the street. Now my phone is in my bag at all times’.
Indeed. Who knows, you might also start looking where you’re going?
Speaking of looking where you’re going, it clearly is no longer cool to use a map, even as a visitor to London. Lots of people stumbling about trying to work out where they are from a two by four inch screen but only me, it seems, using a paper map. But see how everything connects up! Look! Flip it over and you have the entire underground at your fingertips! No more nasty scrolling!
Purchasing a bottle of water and said handy map of London (only £1.95!), from the Sainsbury’s Local close to our hotel, we were aided (unsolicited) at the self-checkout by a very amiable sales assistant with a hipster beard. ‘Where are you from?’ he asks. Cue quizzical look from the Gremlin. ‘You’re not from the UK?’ continues our helper, rhetorically, citing our map as evidence.
It’s official. I am now a stranger in my own land.