From Teahen Tales’ “London Calling” files, join me for an end-of-2017 look back at outstanding art from along the Thames. Part 1 (last post): stage stars. Part 2 (this post): gallery greats.
London may not have the largest collection of art galleries on the planet – a 2012 World Cities Culture Report states that Paris has 1,046 galleries, compared with London’s 857 – but there still are far more places to see visual arts than one can take in on one trip; possibly more than one could take in as a life-long resident. These kind of gallery counts also don’t cover treasures housed in what are considered principally royal or historic sites, such as the Picture Gallery in Buckingham Palace’s State Rooms or Sir John Soane’s Museum – Britain’s smallest national museum – that is crammed with art and artifacts, including William Hogarth’s eight-panel series, A Rake’s Progress.
Another trip might turn up a completely different set of highlights but, from 2017, here are the art experiences that remain bright in my memory.
The National Gallery along Trafalgar Square does not impress by sheer size: it’s the 47th-largest gallery in the world, whereas the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is eighth, and the British Museum is twelfth. I would argue, however, that it is exactly the right size: you can see most of the collection in a day and every work on the walls is among the finest examples of its kind.
National Portrait Gallery
Located adjacent to the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery is an even smaller spot, made smaller during our visit by the fact the areas showcasing 20th-century work (both painting and photography) were under renovation and closed off. Nevertheless, what remained opened was fascinating: a look at British history through portraiture, from royalty to scientists to politicians to artists. Many of the pieces are copies (dutifully noted in the art labels) but others are originals of iconic portraits that are startlingly familiar.
This gallery also has the bonus of one of the best-view dining rooms in London.
The restaurant website humbly states it has “views across London”: these photos don’t do justice to the panoramic sweep the end-to-end stretch of south-facing windows reveal.
Next to the British Museum and the National Gallery, Tate Modern is England’s third-most-popular visitor destination: in 2016, 5.8 million people visited this gallery on the south shore of the Thames, housed in the former Bankside Power Station and a 10-storey extension opened in June 2016: that was a 25-per-cent increase in the number of visitors from 2015, according to a 2017 story in The Telegraph.
The place is abuzz with visitors day and evening. The best place to start is a small gallery on the second floor that sets out to make modern art less intimidating, weird, or “huh?” for visitors. The regular collection includes 20th-century greats from around the world, with a surprisingly heavy emphasis on Americans such as Barnett Newman, although Brits such as Op-art great Bridget Riley are also well represented.
Royal Academy of Arts
The Royal Academy of Arts (RAA), located in Mayfair, is both a school and an exhibition space, bringing in top-notch curated exhibitions throughout the year. During our stay, there were three on offer: Matisse in the Studio, Dali / Duchamp, and the one we toured, Something Resembling Truth, a retrospective of the work of reclusive American painter Jasper Johns.
Unlike with the National and Tate galleries, there’s no photography allowed at RAA. While I’ve seen individual pieces of Johns’s work at several galleries in the U.S., never have I seen so many together in one place. The cumulative effect of these, grouped in themes from this paintings of numbers to flags to crosshatch style to views from his bathtub, was incredibly powerful. Johns’s work also doesn’t photograph very well as it is often three-dimensional, with objects worked into the paint or collage strips of newsprint with messages adding to and underlying what looks, in a photo, like a simple oil painting of an American flag.
Perhaps it was odd to travel across an ocean to be immersed in an artist such as Johns from this side of the Atlantic but it seemed London was on an American art kick, this past year: Tate Modern’s main special exhibition this fall was “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.” London’s visual arts scene gains breadth, as well as depth, as it grows.
Main photo: Nataraja, Bridget Riley, 1993, on display at the Tate Modern, London.