Shakespeare, Vagina Flowers, and a Gay Man
These two institutions are worthy to be on the shortlist of any visitor’s London destinations.
The British Library has six miles of shelves filled with more items than any other library in the world. I remember only too well all the kerfuffle when the library was separated out from the British Museum (and various venues around the city) and pulled together under a new roof in 1997, after taking longer and costing more than intended. The British do not like their institutions messed about with, but in fact, this high-tech, temperature-controlled new location has been a very successful move.
The free exhibitions that the British Library mounts for the public are often tantalizing. I made it to “Shakespeare in Ten Acts,” a multi-media tracing of how Shakespeare became Shakespeare – over and over again through the years. He has undergone a rainbow of reinventions and reinterpretations – and it’s not over yet.
Most fascinating to me were the rooms on racism and sexism – looking at the reluctant inclusion of people of color and women on Shakespearean stages. Using their own vast resources, the exhibition offers a peek at such rare items as the last surviving manuscript hand-written by the man himself. (Check out the video intro to the exhibition at the bottom of this piece if you're interested.)
Speaking of precious papers, no visit should skip the displays of British Library treasures. It’s truly sobering to read Michelangelo’s handwriting from letters he sent in 1550 or to view the pages of Da Vinci’s 1508 notebook. The Magna Carta (1215), written in Latin on sheepskin parchment, is right there behind glass, with its teeny-tiny left-leaning font. I loved the dual letter – half by Anne Boleyn and half by Henry VIII – pressuring Cardinal Wolsey in 1528 to expedite the papal annulment. Wasn’t Boleyn holding out on Hank until they were married?
A bit more modern, but personally arousing to me, was the original binding of 15-year-old Jane Austen’s “The History of England” – a parody illustrated by her older sister Cassandra, who, if I remember correctly, burned many of Jane Austen’s letter in an act of family reputation management, thereby robbing the rest of us of the inside story.
Tate Modern: Georgia O’Keeffe and Bhupen Khakhas
The best way to approach the magnificent Tate Modern museum is by walking over the Thames from the glorious St. Paul’s Cathedral via the Millennium Bridge – opened for pedestrians as a kind of Tony Blair vanity project in June 2000 only to be immediately closed for two years to deal with a disconcerting wobble. It’s beautiful and affords exceptional views.
The Tate Modern is part of a series of Tate museums in Britain. It opened in 2000 in the building that housed from 1947-81 a giant power station. They’ve done an impressive transformation and re-purposing. Recently they added another wing, making the navigation inside a bit complex.
This summer a retrospective of Georgia O’Keeffe was mounted including rooms with the range of her works. We know her best by her painted vagina-flowers, but she did many other kinds of work. I was impressed by her New York cityscapes, where she mostly lived from 1918-29 with her partner, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, whose work is generously included throughout this exhibition. I was disconcerted, during my visit, by a number of quotes from O’Keeffe and comments by the curators on the explanatory plaques rejecting any sexual interpretation of any of her work. She seemed to fully repudiate feminist admiration and it all smacked of a kind of repression that diminished rather than defended her art.
I was much more excited by “Bhupen Khakhar: You Can’t Please All.” Khakhar (1934-2003) was a gay Indian man whose figurative work uses vibrant color and multiple images to tell profound stories. In this first international retrospective, we see his kind of public coming-out period – after a stint in the West and contact with open gay society. He paints men fondling each other’s penises. His early portraits of workers and tradespeople on Indian streets were affectionate and energetic. His late work, when he was dying of cancer, was brutal and honest – in that same way that Frida Kahlo depicted her spinal problems without flinching.
Khakhar’s painting and his commentaries are sometimes hilarious. About winter in the UK, he said, “You are not allowed to smile during this season which lasts for ten months of the year. If you are sensible then try to look as grumpy as possible. English people appreciate grump.”
Despite the throbbing in my feet, I took a quick run through the Media Networks exhibit, where there were copious varied treasures. First I ran into one of my favorite painters, Fernand Leger, a peacenik at the height of the Cold War whose work often commented on industrialization. Here I saw the 1948 “The Acrobat and His Partner,” a huge colorful thrill.
Cildo Meireles’ “Babel” (2001) is a massive tower of radios playing all at once. Instead of achieving communication, we get only info overload and incomprehension. It stands by itself in a tall room and is a sobering reminder of how we live today.
My final mention goes to the posters of the Guerrilla Girls, a collective from 1985-90 that pointed out the wretched gender bias in the art world. One, showing a sliced dollar bill, said, “Women in American make 2/3 of what men do. Women artists earn only 1/3 of what men artists do.” I cannot imagine that too much has changed.
Video intro to the Shakespeare exhibition: