- How London Came to Be: Day 0
- “In Ancient Times”: London, Day 1
- Who’s Your Impressionist Daddy?: Day 2
- The National Gallery: Day 3
“In ancient times,
hundreds of years before the dawn of history,
lived an ancient race of people.
No one knows who they were
or what they were doing.
But their legacy remains.
Hewn into the living rock
of Stonehenge.” ~ N. Tufnel
As we described in our last post, the whole reason for this quick trip across the Channel was an exhibition at the British Museum centered on Stonehenge. It was, however, part of a particularly busy day for us; the kind of day we mostly try to avoid nowadays. It just really couldn’t be helped. We had checked into our hotel in the Whitechapel neighborhood of London, which isn’t necessarily the most centrally located, but with that city’s outstanding public transit system who cares? Speaking of transit, we were in town for the opening week of the Elizabeth Line, a project 20 years in the making which adds a half-dozen or so brand new tube stations and miles upon miles of new track. I won’t pretend to be educated enough about London infrastructure to tell you whether it accomplishes its goals or not, but the stations are clean and modern, and the trains are likewise as comfortable as they are ever likely to be. We took it whenever we could, snug as bugs in rugs. However, our first stop was not via the train. Our first stop was, in fact, about 200 feet from the door of our hotel. Whitechapel Gallery.
To be totally honest, I don’t know if we’d normally be hip enough to know about, much less go to, Whitechapel Gallery. Fortunately cooler people write reviews in newspapers about these things and, to date, they remain willing to sell their papers to the non-cool. The specific reviews that caught our eye were for an exhibition called A Century of the Artist’s Studio: 1920-2020, and it was indeed a treat. Not only were there art pieces depicting the studio spaces of artists (for example photos of Pablo Picasso and Helen Frankenthaler in their studios), there were actual full-size recreations of several artists’ studios, including a corner of one room mimicking Andy Warhol’s Factory and the actual cage that Nikhil Chopra spent 60 hours in at the Havana Biennele. It was absolutely something different from what we normally would have sought out, and all the more illuminating because of it. John was vaguely reminded of an exhibition we saw at Tate in 2007 called “State Britain.” A law had been passed that required protesters to be X feet away from government buildings, where “X” was some absurdly large number. As a result, part of the circle formed by that distance actually passed through the Tate museum. Museums being what they are, they turned that information into an exhibition where the actual protest barricades drew the borderline exactly through the galleries of the museum. Anyway, it was an incredibly immersive experience. And all that before lunch!
From Whitechapel Gallery it is … enh, a 15 second walk to the nearest tube station. Two trains with a transfer later, we were popping up just a few minutes’ walk from the British Museum*. First, though, was a lovely lunch at The Shell. Random seafood isn’t always our go-to, but we’d just had a week of Italian exclusively, so something simpler felt like a good idea. (Expect a review on our Facebook page shortly.) Then we scooted to the Museum for our timed tickets into the world of Stonehenge.
It was a fascinating display, although if we’d thought about it much ahead of time we’d have been able to predict the nature of it. After all, the certainly weren’t going to haul the stones themselves to London. (Where would they find that many willing Welshmen for starters?**) Instead, the exhibit was focusing on shifts in human culture before, during, and after the age of Stonehenge’s “useful” period. Strange to think, but it was only a few hundred years after its erection that the focus of early religions shifted from skyward devotion to mysteries of death and the soul, at which point giant stone calendars, while useful, didn’t hold preeminence. Yes, Stonehenge became obsolete pretty darn soon after it’s completion. In any event, there were fascinating artifacts on display characterizing the culture within which Stonehenge would have been conceived and executed. There were also depictions of other henges, including an actual “woodhenge” made up of a circle of tree trunks that had been hidden completely underwater until a couple decades ago. A rare positive from global warming.
As busy as this all sounds, we weren’t done yet!
We had a date for tea in the Great Court restaurant, which is the mildly-fancier offering of museum food as opposed to the adequate-but-not-recommendable cafeteria fare otherwise available. Great Court offers high tea in the afternoon, made up of little sandwiches, scones, and sweet snackage. We’d hoped (and were happy to discover) that it made for a pleasant respite in the late afternoon.
Especially since there was an entire extra exhibition at the British Museum that we hadn’t even known about when we booked the trip(!). (See earlier posted thoughts on cultural events going on that are both under-publicized and truly fascinating.) In this case the exhibition was “Feminine power: the divine to the demonic.” This time the focus was on depictions of feminine spiritual beings across the planet and throughout history. One of the benefits of doing an exhibition with a “hot” contemporary focus is that loans from other museums seem easier to come by; we only know this from inference, but the exquisite collection of pieces from literally around the world seemed to support the theory. The exhibition did not have an activist viewpoint – that is, it wasn’t arguing for change. Rather, it was trying to scrape the crust off of these feminine figures that already exist and already are powerful but are rarely given full attention in the current dominant cultures. They weren’t being held up, they are up and merely wait for us to turn our heads in their directions. It was an incredible show.
Wrung out from this last art sprint, we lumbered back to the tube and into our hotel, where we made use of the on-site restaurant to put together a pretty simple meat and cheese plate for dinner. From there it was a good night’s sleep before our (relatively) early rise. After all, we had a train to catch.
*- before anybody asks: yes, we know about the Elgin Marbles and the broader problem of plundered loot on exhibit there. We didn’t look at any of that stuff (no really, we breezed past the Rosetta Stone without turning our heads). The case for boycotting the place entirely is compelling. Our reasoning here boils down to the fact that Stonehenge is, in fact, in England, so the particular exhibition is what they actually should be doing in the first place.
**- this may be the dumbest joke John has ever written, which is saying a lot.