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Letter from London: Lackluster Blockbuster


Assuming they couldn’t speak our language, read our minds, develop a communicable form of sign language, or were made out of gas, a good way for aliens to gauge the cultural habits of human beings would be to observe seasonal cinematic behavior. In summer, when the sun beats down, eggs fry on the pavement, etc, many of us sit inside large air-conditioned rooms to watch robots stomp around crushing things. In winter, when the snow falls down the back of your shirt, making a reservoir at the base of your spine, many human beings sit inside small air-conditioned rooms to watch European people have affairs with each other.

In the art world, the opposite happens. After a summer of somewhat low-key gallery and museum shows, the two Tates are going for a Dark Knight/Hellboy 2 -style double-header in the form of Francis Bacon and Mark Rothko retrospectives (at Tate Britain and Tate Modern respectively).  The Hayward Gallery is showing a huge exhibition of Andy Warhol’s video and television work (Sex and the City, perhaps), whereas the Serpentine has Gerhard Richter’s new grids of monochrome squares (Hancock, definitely). Museums obviously rely on the blockbuster format to cover less populist exhibition programming and to keep themselves in the cultural spotlight, but recently there has been an interesting move away from the bums-on-seats approach of some institutions that may usher in a new period of museum identity.

The National Gallery’s new director Nicholas Penny has made it clear that his tenure will be marked by an avoidance of blockbuster exhibitions in favour of an emphasis on the permanent collection and a more connoisseurial and risk-taking exhibitions program. Those who elbowed their way through the recent Velazquez and Titian exhibitions with the insecty whisper of audio-guides ringing in their ears will be glad to hear it. Any attempt to encourage the one-time visitor to appreciate the permanent collection (something many museums fail to emphasize) and to remind infrequent gallery-goers that the experience of art can be an enjoyably relaxed and meditative one, not time-bound by staggered entry or a box to tick on the social calendar, is to be applauded. The gallery’s current exhibition is a case in point: the Italian Divisionists, an Italian translation of Georges Seurat’s Neo-Impressionism, and a jumping-off point for the better-known Futurists (few of the artists are well-known outside of Italy, and when Boccioni appears in the final room it’s as startling as seeing your elderly aunt in the Big Brother house).

Whether or not Penny’s move will prove influential remains to be seen; what is important is the shift of value his ideas suggest, proposing a resolution to the identity crisis that seems to have dogged museums in recent years, going all Hulk when Bruce Banner will do.

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