Tuesday, October 4, 2016

England, 2016, Part 17: Victoria and Albert Museum

Oh, but enough silly boat rides and MARITIME HISTORY. Today we shall go look at pretty things.

The Victoria and Albert Museum is a sprawling labyrinth, chock full of DECORATIVE ARTS from around the world and from all eras. But really just France and Italy from a few hundred years ago.

It lounges through 12.5 acres of Victorian brick warehouses and boiler rooms and shows off more than 4.5 million objects. And every single goddamn one of them is pretty.

The British Museum by contrast, is a smugglers warehouse, bursting with the ill-gotten loot of antiquity, showcasing the very best stolen artifacts from ancient Egypt, Africa, Greece, and Rome. Pleasurable, but its a guilty kind of pleasure.
I've woken up like this before.

The V&A has stuff from France and Italy, so that’s okay because we don’t care about them. All pleasure - no guilt.

(Yes, I am well aware that Rome is in Italy, but there is very little of the Roman in the Italian.)

The entrance the two museums is also completely at odds.
  • The Tube stop at the British Museum is a couple of blocks away, and so you approach the towering facade (Greek “Revival” [meaning “Stolen and copied from”]) as a lowly pedestrian, a blip, an ant in abject perspective to the mighty wonders we are about to show you, you insignificant INSECT!
    The perspective within the center panel blew me away.
  • The V&A Tube stop takes you directly to a tunnel which takes you directly into a side entrance to the museum. There’s no majesty or fanfare or transition. You just turn into the doorway and a gallery of Renaissance Pretties are all ready for you to Ooh and Ahh over. The V&A feels like the worlds most beautiful train station.
Ancient road crews worked about
as hard as modern ones.
Eventually this side gallery (one of 145!) leads you to a central hub and because Admiral Karen and I were seasoned tourists by this point, we took a few minutes to get a map, our bearings and a clue. 

Medieval? Renaissancian? French or Italian? Let us stroll awhile through endless acres of pretty things.

We noted a few themes: 
  • Christian-themed art is such a downer. It is a cult of survivors guilt, designed to make you feel bad about a good man who died for you because you screwed up 2000 years ago. You Idiot. Just once I would like to see a Dark Age sculpture of Jesus kicking back, sandals up on the altar, cigar in one hand, empty tumbler of single-malt in the other, singing along with his homies. But no, he’s always dead dead dead or about to die die die and its all your fault because you were staring at the buns on Michalangelo’s “David”.
    Who knew Jesus was a Pirate?
  • The Classical French were much happier, GAYER one might say, and their imagery is based around myths other than Christianity, and so is much more harmonious and loving. Especially those Satyrs. They loved a lot
  • But also, these lovingly detailed masterworks of Franco Art mostly depict scenes from Nature. There is one whole sitting room, set up inside a gallery of the V&A, that shows the four directions and their correspondences with Air, Water, Fire and Earth - one on each wall, with the appropriate classical myths on each facade and painted constellations overhead. Or, you know, to experience the wonders of our natural world you might consider, i don’t know, stepping outside for a bit? Just a thought.
    I need one of these for my home.
  • That “Keep Calm and Carry On” thing that the Brits have? Totally true. At one point, while oohing and aahing over the worlds most elaborate tchotchkes, alarm bells went off in the entire museum and a Mary Poppins voice came over a sound system and told us “There is a fire emergency in the building. Please be prepared to evacuate.” The alarm and the recorded warning continued for a good 15 minutes. In America this would have lead to panic, flight, tears, wounds, shaky phone movies of the backs of peoples heads, lawsuits, and perhaps a gun battle or two. We however took our cue from the locals, who listened politely to the first announcement and then continued to marvel at the displays. Eventually Mary Poppins apologized to us about the false alarm, and the real alarm ceased clanging. Everybody kept calm and carried on.
    You know, "stuff"
  • There are no long-haired men in Britain, unless you play in a metal band, are a Viking re-enactor, or both.
  • British Decorative Arts are the same as the French, just 30 years later, defrillified, toned down, and clothed.
  • The vaunted Regency Period is just a series of knock-offs of classical motifs and earlier styles assembled for mass-production. A nation of shop-keepers indeed.

LUNCH INTERLUDE

Noah's Pool
We were getting jaded, so we stepped outside to check in on Nature. There is a central courtyard to the V&A, that shows you that yes, the worlds best museum on Decorative Arts is housed in an old brick factory. But the tea was potent, the cakes were encased in a tomb of sugar and it hadn’t yet rained yet that day yet.

We sat on a lawn next to a large pool that was six-inches deep, and watched Noah and his family. Noah was 2, that age when balance is lagging far behind velocity, and he did NOT want to sit and quietly eat a sandwich because there was a POOL right there. With water and everything.
More stuff to dust.

We knew his name because his entire family was pleading with him to come back, not ruin his clothes or dry diaper, and be sensible and orderly and thoroughly British about this.

Good luck tuning!
Eventually Noah’s 7 year old Brother stoically rose on his own volition, waded out, caught Noah’s late and predictable bolt to escape and drug him back to camp, saying (no doubt) “Come on you, Mom’s gonna be mad at me next.”

The whole family managed to get a bite of sandwich into Noah before he next escaped and ran back into the water feature, this time face planting with a respectable splash. This time Mom herself rose to do the honors as the rest of family cowered in fear of her wrath.

After a morning of High Art, Admiral Karen and I were thoroughly entertained by this Low Comedy. in 2035 We fully expect to see Noah leading a punk rock band named Soggy Diaper.
The Black Swan tutu

HU-MAN AFTERNOON  

Fortified and revived we plunged back into the museum. After spending the morning seeing the spectacularly useless, we wanted more of a connection from the afternoon. Where are the practical things, the useful, the human?

"Eclectic"
The V&A has an astounding collection of costumes from stage and screen and we got emotional about seeing the trappings of our role models, namely Margot Fonteyn for Admiral Karen and Adam Ant for me. Swan Lake meets Prince Charming.

Next up was the underbelly of the museum. Also the underass. A temporary exhibition on the History of lingerie and ‘unmentionables’, entitled “Undressed: A brief history of underwear” made for some surprisingly itchy viewing. Equal parts beauty and engineering, the road map of underthings has, at all stages, been staggeringly uncomfortable for the ladies.
Pretty.......confining

(Men, being dull and utilitarian and also controlling everything have changed their underwear only 3 times in 6,000 years)

Every era of underwear has attempted to force certain feminine body parts into certain regions. 
  • Now, you need your ass way out to here. 
  • Next generation, you’ll need to reduce your waist to say, 2 inches, 
  • For this era we say your bosom should hoisted up to your chin and out past your shoulders, 
  • And oh, what the hell, for this decade we’ll tell you that all curves are verboten
  • and so on…..
These are the people in your neighborhood....
So yes, satin and frills but also way too many belts and buckles and boosters and hoisters and straps and boning and ay-yi-yi. My notes for this gorgeous exhibition consist of three words: “Uncomfortable”, “sweaty” and “ouch”

Finally we traveled to an immense, dark gallery. No crowds and almost no talking. This was the hall of the medieval tapestries, which are so delicate they cannot stand bright lighting. Here, finally, was what was missing from all of the other displays: People.
Long before there was baseball there was
"2nd base"

Yes, we had seen human sculpture (some of it quite breath-taking), and we had seen some miniatures and toys and dolls, but they seemed altogether rarified and unearthly. Exalted.

Tapestries on the other hand always seem down-to-earthy. A tapestry is a snapshot of the state-of-the-people, showing what they looked like, what they believed, how they interacted and what they did. History’s Selfies.

It was a fitting reconnection with our ancestors, and a quiet little exclamation point to this wonderful museum. 

The three fates, smacking down 'Chastity'
......as one does......
TRAFFICKING IN TOURISTS

But that wasn’t the end of our day. Ohhhh, no. We had an errand to run in the afternoon: Our friend Prizm was back in Santa Cruz, watching over our FREAKY TIKI, and she is the worlds biggest Harry Potter fan, and there was a new theatrical production and we thought some swag would be a most fitting gift for our housesitter.

And getting from Kensington to Soho is a snap - 5 tube stations and bobsyouruncle. But no, oh no, that would be EASY. Too easy. Just not cricket.

Instead we consulted our bus/boat pass that we used yesterday to travel up the Thames and decided to take a red double decker bus across town. What could be more quinessential? What could be more London? What could be more
On your left you'll see......a red bus. And over on
your right.....some more red busses......
ludicrous?

Turns out we could have made better time if we had swam up the river and then walked on our hands to the theater district, the better to dry off.

First, outside the museum we waited 45 minutes for one of our “Runs every 20 minutes” buses to arrive. This was okay, actually. Sitting on the steps of the V&A on a sunny afternoon overlooking tree-lined Cromwell Road was a nice mental break from the intense workmanship of the day.

Our red bus arrived and we ascended the spiral staircase to the open top section, because we are Americans in England and that is what you DO.

Soho. We really liked this part of London.
And two blocks later our bus merged onto Brompton Road and remembered that it was 5pm on a weekday and the WHOLE WORLD wanted to go to - or leave - Harrods. Bloody Hell.

Ugh. Well, this is why the Good Goddess made cellphone games. An hour later we had traveled 4 blocks, merged - glacially - onto Knightsbridge and finally made it up into 2nd gear. St. Pauls on the right, Hyde park on the left, we putted down tree-lined Piccadilly. Being so high up on the bus put us on the level with the trees, which gave us a kind of arboreal feel for the journey.

Our bus took us right past the Palace Theater, where “Harry Potter and the
Victorians really liked their piles of bricks.
Cursed Child” was playing to packed houses and atrocious reviews.

But alas, the concessions were inside the theater, available only to the raving throngs who were impatiently spazzing out in an adjacent, decades long line. Well, this is why the Good Goddess made online shopping apps for our phones. There you go, Prizm - many thanks from us, and from Harry.

So here we are in Soho, London’s Theater District, surrounded by dozens of stage productions, each one more loud and shallow than the next. Shows so vapid they make “Mamma Mia look like “Twelve Angry Men”.

I mean, how many plot points is a musical called “MOTOWN” going to have? And I’m sure there is some character development in “THRILLER” but its not going to be pretty, or nice. These are the spiritual children of Gilbert and Sullivan, productions - as Tom Lehrer put it - “full of words, and music, and signifying nothing.

Karen had some sort of meat/pie/bread thing.
Plus we had spent 5 days today have our senses dazzled by the worlds finest collection of decorative arts. Every part of us was FULL. Except our stomachs, which were empty. So we ate fish and chips in a pub because we are Americans in England and that is what you DO.

I dunno, maybe they might
be compensating.......naaah.
We caught another tour bus back towards Waterloo, congratulating ourselves for surfacing from the Tube tunnels and actually seeing the the city of London, which was warm and colorful in the long twilight of a Northern August evening.

On a whim we hopped off the bus at Trafalgar square and were instantly drowning in surly, sunburned tourists. They had spent all afternoon foolishly driving their rental cars across the city, and then spent hours and pounds parking just to come and see the statue of Admiral Nelson, because thats what Rick Steves said you should do in London.
Elizabeth's tower, with the clock.

And now they have found out that Horatio stands on top of a column that is about two miles high. He looks like a Lego Mini-figure up there.

Foolish by-the-book tourists! WE saw Nelson’s underwear yesterday!

Marble as a gauzy veil. Wow.
Over the grousing in 10 different languages Admiral Karen and heard the bells of Big Ben. We followed the sound and sure enough, there it was, the icon. And I gotta admit, it was kinda moving to hear the actual chimes playing their legendary melody. 

And the bells called us home, over Westminster Bridge, under Waterloo station and then to rest our tired feet, eyes, minds and hearts in our shoebox hotel room in Lambeth.

Tomorrow would be our last full day before we flew home on Friday. How could we ever top the grandiose sublimity of this day? Well, by aiming both higher AND lower.

Angus McMahan
angusmcmahan@gmail.com
@AngusMcMahan

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