London Museums

One of our favorite activities in any city is visiting museums. London sure provides a lot of opportunities to do so. this blog summarizes our visits to some of the many London Museums.

Tate Modern

This modern art museum has been greatly expanded since our previous visit. It is now divided into two wings (Boiler House and Switch House, with a smaller “Tank” exhibition area in the basement). We continue to love the original Boiler House wing, which contains the majority of the museum’s permanent collection. Although we had some difficulty understanding the linkages of some of the works to the theme of the gallery in which they were displayed, this was at most, a minor inconvenience.

This being said, the Modern’s collection is far less inclusive than those of New York City’s MOMA or San Francisco’s SFMOMA. We, for example, saw only one major work apiece by Picasso (“Weeping Woman”) and Matisse (the four-sculpture study, “The Back”) and individual (although generally less iconic) works of many of other modern masters. Of particular note are works by Magritte, Dali, Anish Kapoor and the somewhat creepy “Chessboard”, the culminating work of Germaine Richter’s short career.

Picasso - Weeping Woman - 1937

The museum also has entire (albeit generally small) galleries devoted to a number of artists: particularly Mark Rothko’s signature nine-canvas “Seagram Murals” series and Gerhard Richter’s squeegee paintings.


Other entire gallery representations include:

  • John Heartfield’s photo-montages that parodied and condemned the rightward shift of Germany in the pre-WWII era;
  • Bridget Riley’s progression of geometric works from black and white, to grey and to full color (in a piece that paid homage to Matisse’s use of color in “The Bathers”;
  • Bernt and Hilla Bechner’s multiple series on all types of industrial structures; and
  • Jane Alexander’s, African Adventure, which blends human and animal forms into an arid African landscape.

Heartfield 02Jane Alexander 02

But while some galleries were devoted to individual artists, or even a single stage of an artist’s work, other galleries attempted to encapsulate an entire genre, such as Surrealism, into a single gallery. One gallery subsumed the entire Expressionist and Abstract Expressionist (represented by a single Pollock) into one small room. Others, like Pop, Symbolism and Minimalism are represented by a few pieces spread across several galleries.

The museum’s themed exhibits included:

  • In the Studio, which uses sketches, studies, paintings, and other objects to examine different ways artists use their studios. Examples included how Braque used his studio to study shapes, how others used them as controlled environments in which to experiment, some like Matisse often kept pieces in their studios for years, sometimes to return to them and sometimes not, how some kept finished pieces there, and how photographers used them to control lighting and shading, to develop their images to their needs and for post-production manipulation.
  • Materials and Objects, or art made from everyday objects, whether scavenged or purchased expressly for the piece. These include Duchamp’s “Urinal” and Man Ray’s “Flat Iron”, one of Picasso’s first collages, one of El Anatsui’s bottle top sculptures and a sheet of cardboard that was filled with symmetrically aligned paperclips that were glued to it.
  • Media, which featured the impact of mass media on art—and art’s parody of media. This included one of the few Warhol works (one of his Marilyn series), a towering Cilido Meireles sculpture (“Babel”) consisting of hundreds of radios, each playing a different station to represent information overload, and quotes from a numbers of artists that briefly explain how different types of media (including social media) affect and may redefine art.
  • Start explores artist’s use of color by providing examples of dramatic coloring and explaining their role in prompting different reactions among viewers. Examples include the visual confusion of the multi-hued bands of color that Richter digitally extracted from one of his squeegee paintings; the striking contrasts in Matisse’s “The Snail” and the Ways in which Kandinsky used colors to engage emotions.
  • Artists and Society portrayed ways in which artists provide commentaries on political events, such as Picasso’s commentaries on the horrors of the Spanish Civil War (“Weeping Woman” in the Tate and most poignantly, Guernica in Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofia), multiple artists’ commentaries on industrialization, gender and racial equality, their interjection into social debates and Joseph Beoy’s commentaries on everything from German society to death and rebirth. Another exhibit showed pictures and videos of one of the most dramatic artistic political protests of all—and almost full-scale copy of the Parthenon’s that was built exclusively of books that were banned by the Argentinian junta.
  • Living Cities, consisting of images that portray cities in every conceivable way, from satellite-level aerial perspectives to intimate representations of individuals and their personal portrayals of their lives.
  • Artist’s Gallery, Louise Bourgeois, which explains how an American Sorbonne graduate in Mathematics became an innovative sculptor whose work addressed such fundamental issues as birth, death, love and fear.
  • Between Objects and Architecture, in which materials used in the construction of buildings are used in different ways to represent space and perspectives in different ways. Examples include the compression of different building materials in a way that compresses rather than crates space, the use of aluminum sheets and air ducts as sculpture and a one-ton cube of pink glass that bears mold marks on its sides but is almost transparent on its ends.,

The museum was also hosting three special exhibits, neither of which we visited. One was of works by Georgia O’Keefe (a number of exhibitions of whose work we’ve seen); one by Iranian political and social commentator Mona Hatoun (a retrospective which we saw at the Hirschhorn last year) and one by Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar (in whose work we had little interest. We did, however, make two final stops: One to view participate in a few participatory works in the “Tank” (in the museum’s basement) and another to visit the Switch House’s recently opened 10th floor Viewing Level.

National Gallery

We visited the National Gallery primarily for the late 19th-century paintings (overwhelmingly Impressionist) and then took took brief tours of the High Renaissance and Baroque sections.

the impressionist collection is small, but it does provide nice representations of work by all the French masters, plus a few examples of impressionists from other countries (including Finland, the United States and Australia) and Post-Impressionists. Among our many favorites:

  • Monet’s of Gare St. Lazare and Le Havre;
  • Renoir’s At the Theater
  • Cezanne’s Hillside in Provence and Bathers;
  • Pisaarro’s Boulevard Montmartre;
  • Seurat’s Bathers at Asieres;
  • Van Gogh’s Chair;
  • Toulouse –Lautrec’s The Two Friends
  • Degas’ pastels of After the Bath and Russian Dancers; and two from artists from other countries:
  • George Bellows’ Men of the Docks; and
  • Gustave Klimdt’s Portrait of Hermine Gallia.

Monet - The Gare St Lazare 1877Renoir - At the Theater

Of the more traditional works, we especially liked:

  • El Greco’s Adoration on the Name of Jesus
  • Rembrandt’s Self Portrait at 63
  • Reuben’s The Lion Hunt
  • Velasquez’s Toilet of Venus; and
  • Turner’s Boats in a Gale.

El Greco - The adoration of the name of jesus - 1578 (2)

Courtland Gallery

The Courtland Gallery contains a few rooms focused in Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque and 18th century European art, but its primary focus is on Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and early 20th century art. The gallery has some iconic Impressionist pieces including Cezanne’s The Card Players and Van Gogh’s Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear (from when he attempted to cut it off after an argument with Paul Gaugin).

It also contains a number of less famous, but still wonderful Impressionist works from these and a number of other artists. Among our favorites are Manet’s Bar at the Folies Bergere and Banks of the Seine at Arquenil, Cezanne’s Impressionist/pre-Cubist Lake at Annecy.

Manet - A Bar at the folies-Bergere 1881

It had examples of work from all of the Impressionist masters, a few post- Impressionist works (Rousseau, Bonnard, etc.) and a number of Impressionists with whose work we aren’t familiar. There were, for example, a number of works by Rees van Dongen and Maurice de Vlaminck, and smaller selections from others including Mikhaiul Larinov, Mathew Smith and Walter Sickert. Of these other artists, we particularly liked Henri Lourens’ Woman Arranging her hair.

Laurens - woman Arranging her hair

The late 19th and early 20th century collection went beyond Impressionism, as with some Fauvist works (as from Alexej Jawlemsky and Max Pechstein) and representations of other genres, as with works from Modigliani, Legar and Dufy, and even some ventures into pure abstraction.

The gallery also had two special exhibitions:

  • Jasper Johns’ series of prints and etchings in which he explored the four seasons; and
  • Georgiana Houghton’s “Spirit Drawings” in which the 19th century spiritualist and medium (who had artistic training) produced a number of watercolors that she claimed were totally guided by spirits, with absolutely no conscious planning or thought. Whatever the inspiration, some of her works, including some with fine lines and complex detail, did presage some 20th century abstract art.

An interesting gallery, but perhaps we have seen too many Impressionist works to be overly impressed.

Saatchi Gallery

The entire gallery has been taken over by “Exhibitionism”, the first international exhibition on, and authorized by The Rolling Stones. The exhibit contains more than 500 Stones’ artifacts, videos and interactive displays that cover the 50 year history of one of the most influential, and certainly one of the most colorful rock bands of all time.
The incredibly well done exhibit profiles the band’s history, from Mick and Keith’s fortuitous meeting (running into each other on a train while both were carrying blues albums and Bryan Jones’s ad for musicians to launch an R&B band), all the way through their 1,823 concerts, and still counting. And every stage and facet of their amazing run was documented with mementos of their lives and careers, commentaries by the band’s members, diaries of their exploits and explanations by many of their collaborators. The exhibition included exhibits of:

  • The incredibly messy and filthy flat they shared while putting their band together;
  • The band’s meteoric rise into a British and then American musical phenomenon;
  • Their first, critical U.S. tour, where they got to meet, play with and learn from blues legends including Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy. Guy, in fact, it explained how the Stones did more to popularize blues than had all the black artists combined that came before them.
  • Mick and Keith’s musical bond, songwriting collaboration and the instruments they used to do so (including the Gibson Hummingbird on which Mick composed many classic songs).
  • Their initial recording studio and the ways in which they used their freeform sessions to hone their songs, with each member having the flexibility to hone their own sounds.
  • The concert films they commissioned and interviews with some of the directors (including Martin Scorsese) they used.
  • Mick’s idea for use of the Stones’ famous “tongue” logo and its anti-establishment and sexual undertones;
  • Album cover design process, including collaborations with artists including Jeff Koons, and especially the multi-faceted collaboration with Andy Warhol on the “Sticky Fingers” album and posters and with Peter Corriston on promo posters that morphed the musicians’ faces with the facial features and hairstyles of famous actresses.
  • Mick and Charlie’s intense focus on designing the stages (such as for “Bridges to Babylon”) and posters (including the half eagle/half plane poster for their “1975”) tours and how the Stones became the first band to take total control for the sound engineering of their concerts by bringing all their own equipment and using their own riggers.
  • Evolution of their dress styles from unmatched off-the-shelf, to custom-tailored clothes, and then to wild outfits and “spectacle” costumes;
  • Personal mementos and artifacts including the cassette recorder Keith always used, Mick’s intial wardrobe case and the prop (with fake donkey and real drums) used for the “Get Your Ya-Ya Out” album cover.

flatsome girlsTour of the America's poster

And all of this was accompanied by many rooms of music films and videos, culminating in a “backstage” tour and fabulous 3D film rendition of “Satisfaction”.

Overall, a great education as to the combination of happenstance, hard work and seamless cooperation and coordination that was required not only to create—but also to continually maintain and refresh—one of the most influential and long-running phenomena in musical history.

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