Monday, June 23, 2008

Avoiding the Void

Museums and galleries are too big. Both Tate Modern and MOMA in New York suffer from a giganticism that is more to do with institutional ambition than art. Both, oddly, are dominated by enormous, pointless voids which seem to push the art to the periphery. Perhaps this is a deliberate commentary - art enfolds emptiness. The small museum has no voids. Until yesterday my favourite museum in the entire world was the Frick in New York - a little palace full of masterpieces. Yesterday, however, it was replaced in my affections by the Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston. I won't even try to evoke the genius of this place, but it's basically a Venetian fantasy and it has plenty of darkness. I like Venice and darkness. Of course, it also has masterpieces, a sublime early Rembrandt self portrait, a magnificent Velazquez, a perfect Fra Angelico and this late Titian, said by some to be the greatest painting in America. The one shortcoming of the ISG seems to be its vulnerability to theft. They have even lost a Vermeer which is a touch careless. Never mind, small is the future. It's time to break up the big collections and distribute them around local palaces designed and built by fiendishly rich aesthetes, if any are left.


  1. You're so right about the Frick. It is the fact that, at heart, they are the personal collections of individuals, gathered over a lifetime and, whilst having a sense of theme, they invariably express an enthusiastic eclecticism

  2. I like the Frick too and it brings visitors back to the pre-public museum experience when the only way you *could* see these masterpieces was to visit the wealthy person's home who owned them.

    In England, didn't casual visitors used to be allowed to visit stately homes if the residents were not at home and the caretakers agreed? At least, in 19th century novels, that happens pretty often. How did the common person see great art before that, I wonder? I mean, if it wasn't in a church or part of a public space?

  3. Before that, Susan, it was all engravings - not much of a substitute, but before big public museums and good colour reproduction, that was it.
    Couldn't agree more, Bryan, about scale. The National Gallery (London) is big enough for any gallery. Me, I'm exhausted if I go much over an hour looking at paintings...

  4. Amen to small. I go back time and again to the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge. I think it is absolutely the perfect size for a museum. And I do like revisiting the Wallace Collection, which I guess is our version of the Frick, but without the breadth of truly stand-out paintings - and far too much Sevres, ormulu and fat pink cherubs.

  5. Don't have any strong feelings about smallness, but thank you Bryan for putting that extraordinary Rembrandt in front of me, and liberating again the wonder I felt on first seeing it, trying to work out how a 23 year old could create such a thing, and then remembering that by that tender age, but 150 years later, Mozart had already composed his Paris symphony, and all that came before it - and then I remember what I was like at 23, and shudder