I am not sure that I had ever actually seen the portrait bust of Michael Jaffé by Elisabeth Frink, which shows him grizzled and, as indeed he was, in the guise of a Roman Emperor. It was turned down by the National Portrait Gallery, not, I think, anything to do with the quality of the bust, which is remarkable, but because Jaffé was one of those people who made enough enemies in his life probably to have been blackballed. A pity, not least, because the genre of the modern portrait bust is so seldom convincing.
As has been pointed out by Richard Bram, this recent article about the Nordic Pavilion has very good photographs of it as it was relatively recently, with three of the surviving internal trees:-
I was asked by the publishers, Lars Mueller, to review a new book by Mari Lending and Erik Langdalen about the Nordic Pavilion in Venice. I explained that there was nowhere I could review it except on my blog, but they have sent it anyway – a beautiful and thoughtful documentary description of the circumstances which led to the construction of a single pavilion for the Nordic countries – Norway, Sweden and Finland (but not Denmark or Iceland) – in the Giardini Napoleonico in Venice and the incredibly complicated Nordic politics that entailed (it makes the politics of the EU seem simple by comparison).
What I like about the book is that it conveys the extreme messiness of building projects, in contrast to the idea that they spring fully formed from the mind and pencil of a famous architect: the piles of boring committee minutes; the fact that so many decisions about buildings are concealed in discussions and debates between architects, clients (in this case, multiple clients), engineers, cost consultants and contractors and so are often very hard to recover from the piles of surviving documentation. So the drawings for the project by Sverre Fehn are published in double-page spreads, but then you are thrown into the minutes of the first meeting with all their indecision and circumspection about the location of gas pipes and whether or not they should hold a meeting in Helsinki. Then there is a mass of information about the detailed discussions which led to the construction of the building, which was sandwiched on a very narrow site between the neoclassical Danish pavilion – the Danes never did agree to collaborate on the project – and the French (the Swedes had had their own pavilion, but sold it to the Dutch in 1932). The problem of the site was that it had lots of trees, nearly all of which the Venetian authorities insisted on being preserved, so the finished pavilion consisted of a concrete structure with a slate floor, which caused never-ending problems, an open roof, which caused equally never-ending problems, and large number of trees growing in the middle of the building, distracting from the experience of whichever country had been chosen to exhibit. It would be good if every building project was subject to the same deep description because it would cumulatively give a very different sense of how architecture, even great architecture, comes into being.
Indeed, one of the things I have found in writing about museums is how poorly many of them are documented. Few people want to record the problems that building projects often cause, so it is a pleasure to find one described with such remarkable, beautiful fidelity.
I have been trying to reproduce the entry I have written about Michael Jaffé for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which has just been posted online, but I have discovered that, not surprisingly, it is only available to subscribers and I don’t want to risk breaching copyright by doing a copy and paste. I realise that someone reading it may assume, wrongly, that I was a pupil of his, but I wasn’t, merely knew of him as the formidable Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum. He interviewed me to read history of art at his house in Kensington. I was seventeen, very naive and had never been to a house like his. He asked me whether I had any opinion on the attribution of a bronze which he had just purchased that afternoon. I had never seen a Renaissance bronze and I certainly had not the faintest idea as to its possible attribution. Quite quickly he lost patience with my apparently total ignorance and asked me if I had anything whatsoever to recommend me. I said that I had been editor of my school magazine, which I was rather proud of. He drew himself up and told me that he had been editor of the Eton Chronicle and knew that editing the school magazine counted for nothing. That was the end of the interview. It didn’t stop me feeling that he deserved commemoration.
We went for a freezing cold expedition to the Olympic Park for a walk, but couldn’t find anywhere to park, so wandered round Hackney Wick which seemed to be a hive of lockdown activity with cafés and food shops and a nice hole-in-the-wall where we were able to buy freshly baked ciabatta for lunch:-
Someone has kindly pointed me in the direction of an article which makes the case cogently and clearly for accepting that simulacra can often be a legitimate substitute, and possibly even superior, to the real thing, as the Victorian certainly believed. But it doesn’t persuade me that people are going to stop wanting to go to museums as the history of the last eighty years suggests that the more people can read about art, the more they look at images, the more it’s available online, the more they want to see and experience the real thing. Yes, it may be irrational, but no copy is ever a 100% adequate substitute even if – and perhaps especially if – you have to queue to see it.
I did my first online interview yesterday in connection with my book. I found it an odd and interesting experience because I was asked not so much about contemporary art museums and how they display art, which is the subject of my book, but about history museums, including the National Portrait Gallery, and how they represent the past, based round the increasingly common view that we can in some way punish people retrospectively for the views that they held, many of which were, in the light of current attitudes, clearly unacceptable and sometimes abhorrent. It’s an issue which is caught up in the current culture wars which are polarised in a way which is incredibly unhelpful. It will be interesting to see what stance the new Mayor’s diversity commission takes and I was pleased to see that it was not about taking statues down, but putting them up, which seems to me to be the right approach, diversifying attitudes to commemoration, rather than trying to abolish attitudes to commemoration in the past.
It’s a brave moment to be launching a new Festival, but the attached, based in Castle Hedingham on the borders of Essex and Suffolk, looks interesting and unpredictable in a good way – music and poetry and performance. Hard to imagine re-establishing the sense of shared community involved in a Festival after these lonely months on Zoom, but something to look forward to.
This is taking place close to the day of publication:-
On the off chance, you want to hear me talk about my forthcoming book, by which time I will (or may) have had some reviews, you can book now.
Everyone wants me to know about the future of museums. I wish I did. It’s so hard to predict what will happen post-Coronavirus. This morning, I was told that we would all be so addicted to Virtual Reality that we wouldn’t have to bother traipsing round the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa in a heaving crowd. But so far, the more art is available online, the greater the interest in its reality – to look, to experience the real thing in all its uncomfortable three-dimensionality, and I’m not yet persuaded that this will die away. Images in reproduction can never give the same frisson, nor can I be persuaded that the idea of authenticity is some make-belief delusion. It’s like saying people will no longer want to shake hands or hug. Hasn’t lockdown taught us that people don’t want to experience the world from their armchair ?