Labour MP becomes V and A director

Dr Tristram Hunt, currently  Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent, will become the new Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. The V&A is one of the world’s most important art and design museums.

Various UK papers and the V&A have announced the news on their websites. The papers concentrate on the political side of this latest resignation.  This is not the first resignation and more are expected. This latest resignation triggers a second “perilous by-election”, while Labour is experiencing an all-time-low in polls. The news caused Nigel Farage, former Ukip leader and MEP, to boast on twitter “Labour is doomed”.

The V&A seems to be elated. On it website it point out “... A historian, politician, writer and broadcaster, Tristram is an expert on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with a particular focus on Victorian urban history. … Tristram’s support of the ceramics industry, together with the Art Fund, played an important role in saving the Wedgwood Collection in 2014. The collection was gifted to the V&A and is on long-term loan to the Wedgwood Museum in Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent. … He brings widespread expertise across education, industry and politics to the V&A, and a keen awareness of the important role of major public institutions in the UK, having been at the forefront of political, cultural and public life for the last decade. …

According to Rob Merrick of the Independent, Dr Hunt resigns immediately.  The exact date Dr Hunt will start as V&A Director is not mentioned in the papers, nor on the V&A award-winning website.

Telegraph Laura Hughes Tristram Hunt quits Labour
Independent Tristram Hunt stands down
V&A Dr Tristram Hunt announced as new Director

Exhibition: Turner and the Tradition of the Sublime

It is not often, that I discourage people from visiting museums, art galleries, exhibitions. However: if you’re not that much into (modern) art, no devotee of Turner, your time in the Netherlands is limited … any other decent excuse: skip this exhibition. There are far more interesting and important ones taking place in the Netherlands right now.

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Book review: Dava Sobel’s “Longitude”

After reading Douglas Hunter’s book “Half Moon”, of course the next book simply had to be about longitude. Thanks to an impressive BBC television documentary seen a few years ago, the story was more or less familiar. So with the help of the internet, it was not difficult to find the book on which this documentary was partly based.

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Film Review: “The National Gallery” by Frederick Wiseman

This film documentary will not win Oscars. It lasts three hours. Its pace is slow. There is no drama, nor tension. It appeals to a very small niche, not crowds. Yet all this, does not make it unpalatable.

Frederick Wiseman’s recent fly-on-the-wall film gives you a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes of a big museum. Or rather: a tiny impression of what goes on, in and around a huge one.

For London’s National Gallery is  huge. With over 2000 paintings, exhibitions which draw crowds willing to queue for hours in appalling weather, renowned research and training departments, and much more, this museum is not an ordinary nor an average one. It belongs to the top.

The documentary film is not as hilarious as the recent Dutch documentary series – turned into a four-hour-long film – about the “new” Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. My museum colleagues and I were not the only ones reduced to tears of laughter, by the architect-designer falling asleep during each totally boring meeting.

Nor were we the only ones shocked at the enormous amount of money this renovation project cost. From this documentary, it became clear much of this was spent on painting and repainting and painting and repainting and – you get the idea – of the same walls within the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. (This project took 10 years and cost over 375 million Euro.)

No, “The National Gallery” is not that hilarious, nor shocking. It’s far more impressive and interesting. Okay, there are the usual time-wasters you see talking to management and others, who should be told: GET TO THE POINT! You will come across such people in any corporation, institution, board, meeting.

There were also a few fragments showing how terribly nerdy, weird, and extremely elitist the arts and museum world can be. However, most museum staff and talented artists are actually jolly, down-to-earth, and very approachable folks.

“The National Gallery” opens with cleaners preparing the museum for opening. When you visit a museum, you will probably forget that it opens at ten or eleven, but that a crowd of cleaners, security people, and other staff have already been working behind the scenes for hours – to ensure you will have a pleasant visit.

From the cleaners, the focus shifts to management and meetings, guides talking about pictures, you the public (asleep and snoring, or wide awake), exhibitions, educational guides explaining art to school classes, art workshops and history of art lectures, the museum being used to create documentaries or as a background for ballet and other performances – including protest demonstrations – , the restoration departments, and much more.

It was fascinating to see how art was and is displayed. We tend to forget that paintings and other exhibits were probably never intended to be shown as we see them now. Next time I visit Rockox’ house, now a museum in Antwerp, I will certainly try to find out the original room for which Rubens painted his “Samson and Delilah” discussed in this film.

The film shows a few aspects of the restoration process. I’m not sure about you, but touching-up a painting with a tiny brush, on a special coat of varnish, is not my idea of fun. Especially not, when your months of work can be wiped off in minutes to ensure future generations will be able to take even better care of the painting.

It was also interesting to see how Rembrandt re-used a canvas. We think of a painting as fixed, static. We may know that certain pigments and paints deteriorate faster than others. But that Rembrandt’s economy caused odd restorations in the past, as well as his previous painting on the same canvas to reappear … He might have been amused.

My first experience with an exhibition for the blind and partially sighted, decades ago, was actually in London’s National Portrait Gallery. It’s right next door to the National Gallery. It was also my only one so far. It was a revelation to watch the art class for the partially sighted and blind in this film. American and English museums are way ahead in everything, compared to many European museums – and not only in providing such art classes.

The film touches lightly on problems museums face with other people’s events, fund-raising, planning meetings about the next year and next year’s budget and organising special events for sponsors. Much else what goes on behind the museum scenes was not shown.

All this is of course very fascinating for people like me, who love art and museums and dream of working at museums like London’s National Gallery. The only thing which I thought should have been cut short or even totally left out, was the pretentious ballet between two Diana paintings. This ends the docu-film. I’d have preferred a shot of security staff closing down “shop”.

Other members of the audience, though undoubtedly also belonging to the small niche of art and museum lovers, found three hours far too long and too taxing. After roughly one-and-a-half hours, people started to leave.

So if you are truly in love with art and museums, or perhaps work in a museum, this documentary is fascinating. If you’re not – think twice: the Guardian’s reviewer dubbs it “crushingly dull”.

“The National Gallery”, a docu-film by Frederic Wiseman, 2015, lasts three hours. Currently shown in cinemas throughout Europe.
London’s National Gallery website
London’s National Portrait Gallery website

Film Review: Mr Turner

Somehow, this film made a deep impression. I’m still trying to figure out why. For it was not the acting, though it gets rave reviews. Presumably it was light, mood, impressions, rather than acting and events in the film “Mr Turner”.

For a lover of the Venice paintings and early Turner, this biographic film starts too late in Turner’s life. He’s already moved to London, though the film starts with him travelling on the continent. During this film, we see Turner evolving into an early impressionist and dealing with various human relations, and changes in fortune. The film ends with his death – about 1862.

The opening scene takes place in 19th century Holland. It shows Turner absorbed in sketching landscape and sky. It is followed by his unexpected arrival home. Like many a focussed and self-centred artist, he couldn’t be bothered to keep the home front informed of his whereabouts.

In the film, the close bond between father and son is stressed. It was Turner’s father, who enabled Turner to become a great painter. In the film, dad ensures the ingredients for the home-made paints are there and also mixes these paints for his son. Dad ensures cloth is turned into the right size of canvas. Dad does the shopping. Dad shows clients around the studio, trying to sell paintings. Dad maintains contact with and receives visiting family.

Housekeeper Hanna – apparently related to Turner’s wife – is there to clean, cook, do household chores, as well as being available for the occasional sexual release.

Turner does have a family, but steers clear of any family relationships and ties. Where they hardly get financial support, fellow painters do. This can partly be explained by the traumatic experience of having had a mentally ill mother, as well as being a totally focussed artist.

The portrayal of Turner by Timothy Spall reminded me very much of the late Warren Clarke in his role as Inspector Dalziel. Somehow, for me, this interfered with totally appreciating the film. Throughout the film, Turner mainly communicates by grunting like a pig.

This contrasts too greatly with Turner’s capability to put silly asses like Ruskin into place, or rightly diagnose what’s wrong in the Ruskin marriage. In the film, Turner shows he may be an autodidact, but is no fool. He’s capable of great empathy and sensitivity and this film portrays Turner with all his foibles and weaknesses.

It also shows, how like so many other Victorians, Turner lived a complicated life. Dickens separated and lived with a young actress. Wilkie Collins was a bigamist whose families lived close to each other. Ruskin’s Effie eloped with Millais – to name a few. The film shows how the married Turner finds a new love in Margate. The widowed Mrs Booth will eventually move to Chelsea where Turner and she pretend to be married.

During an interview, Timothy Spall explained how much time he spent learning to paint like Turner. The scene showing a Turner tied to the mast of a ship during a storm, is true. Turner wanted to experience a storm, in order to capture the whole impression even better on canvas. His late paintings are very close to impressionistic paintings and the Victorian public did not appreciate them.

The film also shows Turner’s interest in new developments and science. There is the scene where Turner and friends row past the “Temeraire” being towed up the Thames. His painting will show the old, wooden, battleship towering over a small tugboat. Yet it is the small steam tug which pulls it towards its grave. Or as Turner states in the film: steam is the future.

There are many touching and hilarious scenes as well. The meeting with and later visit to father and son Ruskin for instance. Or Turner dabbing a dollop of red paint on someone else’s painting during the preparation for a grand opening. Then there is Hanna, finding out about Mrs Booth and the death of Turner’s dad – mirrored at the end by Turner’s own death.

The film may win awards, but there are problems. It’s not just the grunts. Most disturbing was the stilted imitation of what was supposed to be 18th and 19th century English. Sorry: this clashed dreadfully with the very clean 21st century interpretation of Victorian costumes and 21st century makeup.

Nevertheless: it’s a film well worth watching at least twice. It’s so full of details, many of these will escape you when you’re watching it for the first time.

Interestingly enough: while I was still munching on all the impressions this film left upon me, that very same evening, several of its actors were interviewed on television. Film director Mike Leigh and a few actors like Paul Jesson and Dorothy Atkinson announced they’re raising funds to help safe the last remaining house in which Turner lived: Turner’s house in Twickenham, which he designed himself.

“Mr Turner”: Mike Leigh director; Timothy Spalls as William Turner.
To admire many of Turner’s paintings, sketches, watercolours: The Tate Gallery, London