Dreamlands for Our Critics : If you could enjoy your favorite pastime anywhere, where would it be? Calendar’s film, music, pop, theater, art and TV critics reveal their wishes. : When the Tate Becomes an Artist’s Studio
The art lover can afford to entertain sultanic numbers of favorites. Today the Uffizi, tomorrow the Getty. This week imagination wafts to Washington in a powdered wig, next it’s Paris in a patterned robe. Why cement choice when you can play Henry James at the Huntington in spring and Jack Kerouac at the Museo Nacional de Arqueologia singin’ the Mexico City blues on a warm winter’s day ?
Resist notions that art be a headline price, a political vice or a medium of mass amusement. It’s a solitary solace. Really, any clean well-lighted place will do. So, in fact, will dingy ones as long as one remains undisturbed within.
There is a recurrent tug to London. It’s attached to a filament of affection that goes back decades to a student Wanderjahr when the silent citizens of the galleries were one’s closest friends. Something about the place offered just the right balance of frumpy gray grandeur and cultivated eccentricity.
London has changed, but not that much. New wing, but the National Gallery still stands deferential to Trafalgar Square like a modest monarch secure behind her retinue--Lord Nelson in the crow’s nest, monstrous drowsy stone lions on guard and derelicts with pigeons on their shoulders for life’s poignant jesters.
If they’ve moved the gallery tea shop, it’s a pity. It was a good place to chat with other temporary bohemians. Well, what’s your preferred painting in the world’s greatest picture gallery? Impossible questions kindle good conversation. The image that never leaves the mind is Jan van Eyck’s crystalline “Arnolfini and His Wife,” a late medieval masterpiece whose rigorous realism is more surreal than even a good Salvador Dali.
They’ve spruced up the British Museum too, but the grilled court still stands before great serried columns. Today the Elgin Marbles are grandly displayed atop pedestals. In the old days, they rested near the floor where one could sit with the friendly dust on easy terms with greatness.
Nostalgia is resistant to change, but some things do get better. Walking to the Tate Gallery is still a chilly business with the wind blowing off the Thames, but once inside one faces a grand repository of British aesthetic grace and idiosyncrasy. Everybody loves the Pre-Raphaelite demonstration of how you turn high-mindedness into heartfelt kink.
The Tate’s major joy is, of course, its huge holding of the genius of Romantic landscape artist J.M.W. Turner. For decades it was poorly and scrappily displayed. Finally, in 1987 it got its own home in the Clore Galleries. Designed by James Stirling, the rooms give full measure of the artist who set the stage for sensibilities encompassing Delacroix, Shelley, Byron and even the Abstract Expressionists.
But even Turner at his pyrotechnic peak is not as moving as Turner at his most intimate, and thereby hangs the secret of one of the world’s great unsung art experiences.
There is a study room tucked away at the top of a staircase. Perfectly public, it’s nonetheless missed by most visitors. Found, it is a gracious small space with library tables and green-shaded reading lamps. There for the asking, the chap in charge will bring out portfolios of Turner watercolors that may be examined at leisure. If you have the time, he will happily bring you all 20,000 of them. You sit and turn the sheets as if you were in the world’s generic best place for looking at art--the artist’s studio.