I’ve spent the day reading Tom Hoving’s book Making the Mummies Dance, about his time as Director of the Metropolitan Museum from 1967 to 1977. I was offered a copy when I first went to the National Gallery as a primer in how not to be a museum director (the person who offered it made clear her utter disdain). But I now wish I had read it then because it actually gives a good and interesting account of his intemperate reformist zeal, looking at ways of encouraging more people into the museum and how they might actually enjoy it. There were two things I found particularly interesting, neither of which I knew: the first is that it was Hoving, helped by his architects, Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo, who introduced the front steps to the Museum, abolishing an automobile drop-off, in order to create the democratic experience of people sitting on the steps outside and making the museum look and feel more physically accessible (Ed Jones wanted to do the same at the National Gallery, but got no encouragement); and the second is that it was under Hoving that the Met’s distinctive form of semi-compulsory charging was introduced whereby cash registers were introduced to receive what was intended to be a genuinely voluntary (but psychologically compulsory) charge. I’ve always thought that Hoving was excoriated by the museum community, but he definitely left the Met a much more lively place than it was under Rorimer.
A short session yesterday at the so-called Leica Akademie being taught about the mysteries of aperture, focal length and depth-of-field has made me more attentive to what I was seeing this morning and how to photograph it. The houses of Stepney Green:-
And the light indoors:-
We had the opening tonight of our exhibition which looks at the ways in which a very diverse group of artists make use of drawing in their work. Many of them belong to the last generation who were required to undertake life drawing as part of their training and, for good reasons, rejected it, regarding it, as Jon Thompson described it, as ‘an ideologically loaded tool for making students conform to a certain philosophy of art’ or, as Antony Gormley describes it, ‘At art school, I had a really uncomfortable feeling that we were ignoring the main subject, which was the sensation of living. The Life Room was denying the most interesting thing’. But it feels as if it has never completely gone away. Lucian Freud used drawing as the basis for his paintings. Hockney has gone on drawing against the tide. Michael Landy retreated to drawing weeds after destroying all his possessions and drew his penis after one of its testicles had been removed. The question which hovers over the exhibition and the accompanying book is exactly what the status of drawing is nowadays in the process of looking at, recording and documenting the physical world. What’s its currency ? Has it been, and can it be, replaced by new tools for looking ? Bridget Riley puts it best: ‘I think – and there is evidence enough from other artists – that this kind of discipline is useful even when you are not actually drawing. It creates a kind of thinking that feeds right through into picture-making. It lays an intellectual foundation’.
I’ve twice been asked this week to explain the architectural history of the General Assembly Room at the Royal Academy. The only problem is that it belongs to a period of the building history about which I am a bit foggy. The answer is that Lord George Cavendish, the cantankerous third son of the fourth Duke of Devonshire, member of parliament and of Brooks’s, and rich in his own right having inherited £700,000 from his Uncle Henry in 1810, took a lease on the house in August 1815 from his nephew, the sixth Duke. He had already decided that he would radically remodel the rooms at the front of the house and convert what had been a bedroom on the west side into a State Dining Room and create a ballroom at the east end of William Kent’s grand rooms of parade. He employed Samuel Ware as his architect, who had been articled to John Carr, the prolific Yorkshire country house architect who had been employed long before on making changes to Burlington House, and he been a student in the Royal Academy Schools from 1800. As the Survey of London correctly describes, ‘Owner and architect showed exemplary good taste and great skill in the remodelling carried out between 1815 and 1818. Considerable preliminary study had preceded each operation and full respect was shown for the work done in Lord Burlington’s time’. This is what is confusing about the style of the room. It is essentially a scholarly reworking of William Kent’s style, using details which were copied from Kent’s own designs, either in Burlington House or Chiswick:-
Before I leave the subject of Avedon, I should add a footnote on the tone of slight defensiveness I adopted in describing his photographic technique. One of the reasons was that he had asked if the exhibition could be reviewed – preferably at length – by David Sylvester. I telephoned Sylvester and put the request to him. He said that he would consider it. Avedon was pleased. Sylvester then came in to see the exhibition and hated it. I thought that he had written something about it, but I have discovered that this was a false memory. But I felt badly for Avedon, who had so wanted something written in depth about his work and had not paid attention to the fact (or maybe regarded it as a challenge) that Sylvester almost never wrote about photography and didn’t regard it as an art.
I was actually able to locate without difficulty a copy of the original magazine in which the photograph of my brother and me by Avedon was reproduced (that’s the benefit of being a hoarder – in fact, I’ve kept two copies, easy to find, because they’re too large to shelve). It’s slightly spooky to see a picture of me as I was a mere twenty two years ago, wearing a tie that my brother clearly disapproved of, and a ridiculous hat. I am described, which I like, as ‘le benjamin’.
But I realised that I could not necessarily reproduce it. I am now indebted to the Avedon Foundation who have sent me a good quality digital image and allowed me to post it, which I will hope to do alongside Richard Avedon (2) later today.