I was lucky to get the opportunity to spend 3 winter days in London. I flew on Virginia Atlantic on an overnight flight last Tuesday, and back on an 11:30 a.m. flight on Saturday. I had meetings Thursday afternoon, Thursday evening and Friday morning, which gave me all day Wednesday, Thursday morning and Friday afternoon on my own. This gave me time to get to the Tate Modern, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Academy of the Arts.
1. The National Portrait Gallery. I have always enjoyed this museum, and was able to spend about two hours there, which was long enough to walk through about 2/3 of the gallery. I chose to concentrate on the portraits of the more contemporary Brits, leaving the Tudors and Plantagenets for another time. There were separate sections dealing with royalty, politicians and statesmen, scientists, and contributors to the arts.
A number of things were striking:
a. How many of the subjects of the portraits were unknown to me, or perhaps were a name which I might recognize, but could not identify.
b. How many of them didn’t look like I thought they did. Lloyd George, for example, looked a little pudgy; I thought he was tall and thin. And Benjamin Disraeli looked very, very Jewish.
c. How, in the sections devoted to the Royal Family, you saw Princess Diana twice (once with Charles, once alone), and Camilla not at all.
d. How there were Americans in the museum (T.S.Eliot and Henry James, for example), Americans who spent good portions of their lives in England.
e. How many of the famous Brits died very young.
f. How many surprising omissions there were (unless I simply overlooked them). Where was Oscar Wilde, or Lawrence Olivier, for example.
2. The Tate Modern. I had not been in the Tate Modern before, and must say I was a bit disappointed at the quality of what I saw (and I saw it all). The museum was between major exhibits, so I could only see the permanent exhibit.
What did I like best? The room of Soviet posters, the examples of industrial photography, and a series of photographs taken by a photographer from Mali. There was a very nice portrait of a woman (the two sides of her head being quite different from each other) which I didn’t remember seeing before, and Picasso’s large canvas, “Three Dancers”. A couple of nice brown Braque cubist paintings, 1 Magritte which was not his best, some Monets and Bonnards that seemed out of place, 2 Miros that I didn’t care for (I don’t seem to care for most Miro’s), a mediocre Matisse, a nice Rothko, 2 Jackson Pollocks that I could do without, 3 Anselm Kiefers which were not his best (but I liked them anyway), a Max Beckman, a Roualt, and a wall of drawings and paintings by George Grosz. There were also a large number of pieces and installations and videos that I could have done without completely. Simply weird stuff.
3. British Museum. I did walk through most of the British Museum, and there certainly is a lot to see. In fact, there is too much to see, and it is impossible for me to keep what I did see in mind. Of course, there’s the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles, but beyond that it is broken sculpture after broken sculpture after broken sculpture. I tried to compare it to the Archelogical Museum in Istanbul, which I visited in November, and I have to say that, faced with the opportunity to re-visit one of them, I would choose Istanbul, largely because the collection (while not as broad or as large) is more manageable, and I thought better explained.
The main reason I came to the British Museum, however, was to see a special exhibition on Babylon. This was worth more than the price of admission (which is free, as are all the London museums I visited). The exhibit is a large one that walks you through much of what is known of the history of Babylon, including the Tower of Babel, the time of Nebuchadnezzar, the Jewish exile, the time of Daniel, the Hanging Gardens and the Ishtar Gate. There were many items on display, as well as photos of excavations, recordings of Babylonian texts, and excellent signage.
4. The Royal Academy of the Arts. I stumbled on this museum on Friday evening, after I had a relatively early dinner with two friends. They had decided to go to a show; I begged off because I was tired and flying home the next morning. But as I walked to the Underground, I passed the Royal Academy and saw that it was open late on Friday evenings and that there was a special exhibit on “Byzantium, 330 – 1453”. It was an extraordinarily large exhibit, showing silver ware (I was surprised at the high quality of items dating from the 5th and 6th centuries), ivory, illustrated books, icons, fabrics and coins. A lucky break that I happened to stroll by when I did.