Magazine article The Spectator

Space Invaders

Magazine article The Spectator

Space Invaders

Article excerpt

A visit to the Holbein exhibition at Tate Britain last week taught me something new: interest in serious culture has reached epidemic proportions. I don't think I've stood in the same room with the same density of people around me since I last queued for a Ryanair flight at Stansted (which, alas, was quite recently). The difference of course is that at Stansted the best that can be done is to accept one's role as cattle as meekly as possible while longing for the moment of release, whereas in front of a Holbein it would seem appropriate to be intellectually on the alert if not actually happy.

Under current exhibition conditions this is scarcely possible. I estimated that I had 15 seconds when I could expect to be near enough to a painting actually to see its detail, before the surrounding crowd interrupted my concentration and made me feel I should move along. That interruption communicated itself as a constant low-level threat, which essentially meant I spent all the time I was there remembering how to be civil. It is a monument to goodbreeding that so many people so intent on inspecting the same small spaces scarcely touch each other. True, the room is alive with the initial sibilant of the word 'sorry'; but that dreaded touch, when it comes, is only ever of the briefest. The problem is the cumulative effect on one's state of mind of thousands of tiny impulses to get away from one's fellow citizens. Some people look annoyed, some look dogged, some just keep smiling, but the end result is the worst possible atmosphere in which to think.

I suppose the ideal would be to have the room to oneself. Never having been on the committee of a gallery which would allow me to see its paintings in privileged circumstances, I have almost never had the chance to view greatness in art unjostled.

Except once. Years ago, on visiting the Capodimonte in Naples, I found half the rooms closed off because of a staff shortage. Annoyed at this, having paid my entrance fee, I went a bit mad and offered one of the attendants 50,000 lire to let me see Brueghel's 'Blind Leading the Blind'.

He agreed, and marched me through gallery after gallery of paintings I had seen only in reproduction until we reached the Brueghel. …

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