Well-Spent Day in London Plus Book Haul

Back in the days when I used to work in London, my office was on Piccadilly, so I used to pop into the exhibitions at the Royal Academy quite frequently. This time I had to plan and travel to see the America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s exhibition (as seen by Emma in Paris and associated with books of the time), which closes on the 4th of June, but I’m glad I did.

First, let me start by saying that it is rather small – only three rooms, making it at £12 entry fee for the exhibition – a high price/per room ratio. I have seen many more artists at the wonderful Phillips Collection in Washington DC. However, if you do not have access to American paintings, it is a good starting point, with a very informative guide in each room.

The exhibition was very popular and full of people of all ages, and I wonder if it is because the 1930s have such a resonance for us nowadays. Certainly I could detect many parallels:

a long drawn out economic depression and the decline of industry

Roustabouts by Joe Jones

admiring the dynamism of city life while bemoaning the loneliness it engenders

New York Movie by Edward Hopper

nostalgia for a glorious past and the ‘simpler’ country life

Cotton Pickers by T.H. Benton. Whose nostalgia?
Daughters of Revolution by Grant Wood, who is also the painter of that iconic American Gothic image. He’s not a man who flatters, is he?

but, above all, unsettling visions of dystopia

Jackson Pollock: Untitled (1928-41)
Death on Ridge Road by Grant Wood, for times of car crashes…
The Eternal City by Peter Blume, with visions of Mussolini smashing Roman art and civilisation into fragments.

Art born out of crisis and insecurity, art (and a nation) searching for its identity: it bears out the belief that art can remain after those troubled times have gone, and can offer a far better insight into all its fears and hopes, dreams and nightmares, than mere historical description can ever hope to capture.

I then had a lovely, protracted lunch with two friends from primary school. We’d not met in 30+ years, but were not short of topics to discuss even after we’d gone through all the ‘remember that horrible teacher?’, ‘remember when that wonderful teacher took us to the ballet?’, ‘remember what ghastly clothes we wore in that class picture?’ etc. etc. It turned out that our lives featured some great parallels (we all went to Cambridge, for instance, although at slightly different times, we all travelled widely and ended up doing something very different from what we originally studied), but above all, we all had a very international, open, tolerant outlook. Which goes to show that exposing children to different cultures when they are very young is the only way to foster diversity, genuine curiosity and willingness to understand.

Vienna International School, from vis.ac.at

Two more brief observations about my day in London.

  1. The Romanian Consulate was absolutely heaving with people renewing their passports and preparing to go home or in another EU country. I’ve applied for mine now but the earliest appointment I could get for passports for my children would be end of August. Hmmm, I wonder why everyone is in such a rush to have a Plan B?
  2. Arranging to meet friends at Waterstones Piccadilly is a dangerous sport. Especially if you are slightly early. This is what happened.

Three Romanian writers (one wrote in German, one mainly in French and one in Romanian), an Italian and an Englishman with international connections. The 1930s theme of menace continues too, not just with Isherwood, but also with Benjamin Fondane, who died in a concentration camp in 1944, Paul Celan’s parents died in labour camps during WW2, and Tabucchi’s book is set in Lisbon in 1938m in the grip of Portugal’s fascist dictatorship.

I already read Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood last night. It’s a charming, if slight story about the time Isherwood was a script consultant for a film directed by an Austrian. Sadly, it does not take place in Vienna, but it describes a period of civil war in Vienna in February 1934, following the protests of socialist workers against Chancellor Dollfuss’ plan to create a one-party state, and huge uncertainty which led to an attempted coup by the Nazis and Dollfuss’ assassination in July 1934. An excellent indictment of British lack of interest in ‘Continental’ affairs at that time, particularly in this passage where an insensitive journalist asks the film director what he thinks of events in Austria and is surprised by the counter-attack of ‘Well, what do you think about it?’:

‘After all, Mr Bergmann… you must remember, it isn’t our affair. I mean, you really can’t expect people in England to care…’

Bergmann’s fist hit the table, so that the knives and forks rang. He turned scarlet in the face. He shouted, ‘I expect everybody to care! Everybody who is not a coward, a moron, a piece of dirt! I expect this whole damned island to care! I will tell you something: if they do not care, they will be made to care. The whole lot of you. You will be bombed and slaughtered and conquered. And do you know what I shall do? I shall sit by and smoke my cigar and laugh. And I shall say, “Yes, it’s terrible; and I do not give a damn. Not one damn.”‘

Patterson at last was looking a bit scared.

‘Don’t get me wrong, Mr Bergmann,’ he said hastily, ‘I quite agree with you… We don’t think enough of the other fellow and that’s a fact… Well, I must be toddling along. Glad to have seen you. We must have a talk, some day…’

Well, as you can see, even a day of leisure and admin in London ends up political at these times. I’m off to water the flowers, breathe in deeply and meditate.



26 thoughts on “Well-Spent Day in London Plus Book Haul”

  1. Sounds like you had a great day out. I really enjoyed this exhibition too, especially the paintings by Grant Wood. It turned out to be a great opportunity to see them in the UK. I was struck by the variety of pieces on show – there’s something for everyone here.

    1. I should have known you’d go to this exhibition as well. I’m planning to see the Giacometti as well – so maybe we can coordinate and go together!

  2. Your reunion sounds lovely. H and I went to Piccadilly Waterstone’s recently and enjoyed the view from the top floor restaurant before going our separate ways, agreeing to meet half an hour later. I’d just finished paying for my haul when I turned round and there he was – empty handed, with a huge grin on his face. I’d been caught!

    1. Caught red-handed… My excuse is that there is no bookshop in my town, or even in the neighbouring town, so I have to make the most of it on my rare trips to London.

  3. Sounds like a perfect day, and love that Grant Wood image. I was there recently for the Russian exhibition which was magnificent. The RA is much too close to Waterstones to be safe though – and what a beautiful store it is!

  4. What a lovely day you had, Marina Sofia! I’m so glad for you. The exhibition may not have been large, but it sounds interesting. And how fun that you and your former classmates could renew your ties. Oh, and about Waterstones? I couldn’t possibly escape there without at least a few books…

    1. There was one scary moment during the day, when I thought I might not make it to the consulate in time for my appointment, since the Underground station was a bit far away, so I was running and arrived all sweaty and red-faced only to find out that they were going to take my passport photograph then and there…

    1. It doesn’t always work, of course. I have met up with old friends where we had nothing to say to each other any more, but happily, that was not the case. And I very nearly was late for my appointment, because we just couldn’t tear ourselves apart.

  5. And Hatchard’s? Do you ver Go to Hatchard’s? That’s my Mecca. Otherwise, I love Hopper, of course, but I absolutely adore that Grant Wood portrait! The expressions! Wish I could paint like that…

  6. Nice to see TH Benton there. When I recently read The Grapes of Wrath, it was in a Kindle edition that reproduced his illustrations for it, and I thought they really enhanced the book. My tip for not getting upset by UK politics is to watch US politics instead – it’s much more fun, in a pre-Apocalyptic kind of way…

    1. I was not aware that he illustrated The Grapes of Wrath, but yes, I can imagine that would be very appropriate. No, US politics is too crazy at the moment. I am contemplating running away to Samoa or something of the sort, except that the rising sea levels will probably make it disappear in a few more years.

  7. Hi Maria,

    I see you had a lovely day in London. (Thanks for the mention btw and I’m glad you enjoyed this exhibition)
    Great reunion with friends, books and arts : has the world anything better to offer in life?

    (PS: I bet you never guessed back in the 1990s that a Romanian passport might become so precious. *sigh* for UK citizen)

    1. It was a very nice day! It’s indeed ironic what a liability my Romanian passport was when I first came to the UK, but how useful it will prove to be now.

  8. Interesting books and post and comments here. I have a book by Tabucchi, “The Missing Head of Damasceno Mateiro,” about a cover-up of police murder in Portugal. It’s quite good, a mystery with some philosophy thrown in.
    Yes, U.S. politics is quite insane now. This is a bad day to think about it, since the current resident of the White House just took the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement. How sad for so many people around the globe who are suffering from global warming’s effects, not to mention the health of the planet itself.
    I watch the news, but with limitations. They’re trying to undo the health care law and kick millions of people off of health care programs, deny women birth control coverage, etc. Whatever is awful is happening here, including hate crimes.
    I do want to bury my head in fiction and movies, but I had to pay some attention to the news.

    1. I am a bit of a news addict, but find myself ranting and getting so upset, I am not sure it’s good for my health. Certainly not good for my writing.

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