Magazine article The Spectator

London's New Chambers of Horror - and Three Success Stories

Magazine article The Spectator

London's New Chambers of Horror - and Three Success Stories

Article excerpt

That iniquitous tax on the poor to finance the pleasures of the rich, the National Lottery, has produced unprecedented expenditure in the world of public galleries. As one might expect, given the calibre of the people who run these institutions, and who sit on their boards of trustees, the results have been in varying degrees deplorable, though there are some comforting exceptions. The worst monstrosity, the proposed extension to the Victoria & Albert Museum - a chaotic pandemonium - has not yet been built and, from what I hear, it never will be. But most of the crop of the fatidical year 2000 is bitter if not actually poisonous fruit.

The National Portrait Gallery, once one of my London favourites, where a student of history could feel thoroughly at home, has decided to transform itself into a station on the London Underground and an enormous escalator is now its central feature. To celebrate this incongruous venture, it has been holding an exhibition of 20th-century works, supposedly portraits, which was mostly the same mixture of second-rate commercial art and modernist rubbish one now expects, and gets, at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Particularly objectionable was a vicious, and egregiously badly painted attack on Margaret Thatcher, by an American-German, with nasty jibes at the Saatchi Brothers thrown in for good measure. At the function I attended, an inept plea was made for cash donations to finance further follies. I looked around the gathering. All the seriously rich people there - not many, actually - were admirers of Lady Thatcher.

The huge and monumentally expensive changes at the British Museum were even worse than I had feared. Words fail me to say what I think about the new BM. Or rather they do not fail me. When I looked at the internal court of whatever it is, with its weird uprights - some of which are signposts, others genuine works of art - its garish double staircase, and its crissy-crossy glass ceiling, I thought at first of the kind of sub-palatial houses I have sometimes stayed in before giving a lecture in New Mexico or Arizona, where the hostess says after dinner, `We'll take coffee, Professor Johnson, in the atrium.' Then I thought of Hitler's architect, Speer, though the comparison does him little justice. Finally, I realised what it was that the thing reminded me of: a late-1930s Hollywood musical in the studio set of the period, with Busby Berkeley's beautiful ladies longlegging it down the staircases and realising to their horror that they are in a B-movie. I could just imagine, coming round the corner in Roman Empire skirt, big-bosomed Victor Mature, closely attended by a mangy Colosseum lion.

It is not fair to criticise the Tate Modern building because it was, after all, built as a power station and still looks it in a shamefaced way. It has been converted in a manner I found confusing, but then I reflected that going to Hell probably is confusing at first, before the horrors become painfully familiar. Here, too, I felt I detected echoes of the Third Reich, in the uniforms of the attendants, unisex Blackshirts, and in the general atmosphere of Thirties totalitarian modernism. When I attempted to go into the empty restaurant, to look at the view from it, I was sharply told that it was `fully booked'. Here was a touch of New Labour, of which Tate Modern is a perfect product, for in the unforgettable words of Lord Dome the nation is now divided into `VIPs and the ordinary public'. …

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